Director: Vishwak Khanderao
Cast: Nitya Menen, Satyadev
On July 11 1979, a rogue satellite called Skylab was supposed to fall on India and wipe out the lives of thousands, if not millions of lives. Skylab the film decides to tell the story of one village where its people were seemingly living in the ‘happily ever after’ part until they fear their lives are about to end.
Therefore, Skylab poses a relevant existential question. What if the world were to end because of a disaster you had no say in. Sounds familiar?
Skylab, while giving its characters the fear of death, understands that its audiences have the power of hindsight. We know nothing came off the Skylab panic so we laugh at the characters knowing that the world will be all right. But at the same time, it’s a mirror to our behavior over the last year and a half. Were you a good human? Did you change? How did you suffer and how did you help those who were suffering knowing that life could end at any point?
Skylab therefore has all its philosophical quandaries served on a plate owing to the times we live in. There haven’t been too many plots in recent times which came with such easily understandable subtext. The film takes a dig at misinformation, religious dogma, caste and power abuse, gender roles and masculinity, and many other social problems all squeezed into the world of Bandalingampalli in Karimnagar.
Every person and every prop represent something in the larger world. The priest represents the bigotry of the religious class, the fake doctor represents those profiteering of people’s ignorance, the child who helps the Dalit sculptor represents a future where caste boundaries may perish, and a former Subedar represents the idea of dignity of labor and the toxic masculinity that is imposed on him by the women of his house.
And finally through its main characters Gauri, a writer, (Nitya Menen) and Anandrao a money hungry doctor (Satyadev) represent the idea that science and arts should work hand in hand to create a happy world.
Now if you’re wondering why I’m only talking about the metaphors, it’s because there isn’t much plot. The film takes its metaphors and rather than cook something delicious with them, it decides to do a PhD on the easy and the apparent. There is barely any drama and a lot of the drama that there is not shown on screen or happens after it ends.
I’m all for stories where the two main leads of opposite sex don’t fall in love and it’s admirable that this film wants to try that. But the world is about to end and there are two city-bred ambitious opportunists in the same village. A fleshed-out love story between Gauri and Anandrao would have helped the film.
The film gets so much right but just not the plot. It has a superb Wes Anderson-esque treatment that should have worked and the effort cinematographer Aditya Juvvadi put into adding symmetry into each frame, especially given that this is set in a village where the terrain and architecture aren’t necessarily even, is splendid. The art department seems to have done the work of archaeologists to dig up costumes and props from the 1979 and each time they leave you spellbound.
And Prashant Vihari’s decision to play Western Classical music where many modern music composers (such as Vivek Sagar, Santhosh Narayanan) would have chosen a mix of folk music and blues is smart and it works on screen. Playing Beethoven as domestic help in the house are scared of Gauri’s reaction or the way even Anandrao’s money making schemes are hightlighted through playful Waltz like music over the semi-arid setting of Karimnagar is a joy to watch. Even director Vishvak Khanderao has put effort into synchoronizing the movements of his actors for comedic effect like a mix between sketch comedy duos and Edgar Wright’s work.
But all of these are in vain because the writing is never as funny as the music and movement tell us. The drama is never as good as the music and slow-motion shots suggests.
Maybe it struggles with the fact that they chose Gauri to be a writer and it’s difficult to show that in a visually stimulating manner on screen. No matter how many typewriters they whip out, or how many jokes about her struggle with writer’s block are attempted it’s just never visually funny. And the obstacles in her way never feel serious enough because neither does she take the Skylab crisis seriously, nor is she meek to not stand up to her father when he pesters her on getting married. Her only real problem seems to be not getting published (which on a dramatic scale of one to The Godfather feels like watching static signal) and the need to win her Telugu teacher’s approval. You figure out where that stands on the scale considering that those around her are worried that the world might end.
Similarly, Anandrao is a doctor who wants to make money and leave the village because he sees it as a dead end. But all the moments that tell us why he is like that or why he changes his mind never work. There is some drama with the fake doctor and the interval stretch seems quirky and odd but none of this picks up until the climax begins so it feels like a whimper.
Or take the best thread of the film – Rahul Ramakrishans’s Subedar Ramarao whose family lives in penury but talks of their great past and won’t let Ramarao do any work thinking it’s beneath him but also will dump all the debt on him. It’s ripe for drama but the film is so scared of being a tear jerker that it pushes to play the character in a ‘cute’ and ‘quirky’ way.
Feel-good cinema does not mean it is devoid of drama. Skylab gave me many things to think about both technical and worldly but just not enough drama.
There is a line in the film uttered by Gauri about how sometimes it’s better known to be known as someone who tried something new and failed than tread the familiar path. I’m afraid this film might have to apply that to itself there.