Karma Cafe Short Film Review: A Noble But Over-Scripted Act Of Human Discourse

The makers of this short film mean well, but noble intentions don’t always translate into engaging cinema. Some stories are better read than watched
Karma Cafe Short Film Review: A Noble But Over-Scripted Act Of Human Discourse

Director: Kabeer Khurana

Cast: Amole Gupte, Nakul Sahdev

Late at night, a young man named Alif (meaning "compassion") stumbles into a mysterious café called "Karma" owned by a saintly old chap named Darpan (meaning "mirror"). Customers don't have to pay for dishes at Karma Cafe; they are served what they deserve by a machine called Cosmo. As is evident, spirituality and old-school goodness are hardwired into a short film co-written by 75-year-old Saeed Mirza. A famished Alif wants a fancy Turkish soup, and in order to earn this meal, he must internalize his own name and allow gentle Darpan to show him his true reflection across this chamber drama's 14 minutes. From owner-customer small-talk, their meeting slowly assumes the righteous outlines of a psychiatrist-patient session.

The makers (and by this I don't mean 'God') mean well, but noble intentions don't always translate into engaging cinema. Some stories are better read than watched. They cut deeper on paper. Lending an extra medium of imagery to them somewhat dilutes our perception of their philosophical discourse. I can imagine a scene like this hidden between the pages of an introspective Mitch Albom novel. The aura gets lost in translation to the screen.  

When we read lines like "Your character is the ingredient that Cosmo uses; the better the character, the better your soup," they assume their own language, accents and physicality in our heads. On paper, we expect sentences to be clear, communicative and "written" – they are supposed to read like coherent sermon-like thoughts rather than conversational dialogues. The tone doesn't need to be reactionary; there are no pauses, hesitations or bouts of stammering. But on screen, these lines have to become an 'exchange' – they need to be adapted to depict the flaws of the spoken word. The characters must appear like they are searching for words even as they speak.

When Alif and Darpan speak to each other here, they sound like defined characters from a book rather than people in a café. Their diction is designed to suit the writers' voice instead of their own; it never helps that English isn't the first language for most Indian actors. As a result, they appear to be more on stage than in front of the camera.

Many films of literary nature fail to 'humanize' the high-level discourse they are written to impart. Not much can be done by way of shot-making or location – the café, lighting and the basic composition of frames can't really add to the visualization. Which is why it's important for the actors to verbalize the script rather than reproduce it. Perhaps Gupte and Sahdev could have coloured between the lines. Or perhaps director Khurana could have directed them a little less and left some room for interpretation. After all, the menu of Karma Cafe – otherwise known as Bandra's Birdsong Café – is an "organic" one. There is no reason for the action to feel otherwise.

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