Flip Review:  All Style And Little Substance, Film Companion

Created by: Bejoy Nambiar
Cast: Sheetal Menon, Naman Shaw, Aditi Vasudev, Ranvir Shorey, Kartik Krishnan, Jim Sarbh, Sandeepa Dhar, Viraf Patel, Arjun Mathur, Shweta Gulati
Streaming on: Eros Now

More than a decade after winning Sony Pix’s Gateway To Hollywood contest as an upcoming young director, Bejoy Nambiar remains one of Indian cinema’s most frustrating – and, on better days, enigmatic – filmmakers. Each of his feature-length efforts, from Shaitan to Wazir, are movies that are too consumed by the idea of being movies. Snazzy imagery and fancy frame rates are fine as long as they complement, or even contradict, the writing. But in Nambiar’s case, it’s the writing that seems like more of a mandatory device used solely to highlight his technical showboating.

Which is why you’d imagine that Flip, an anthology of four short films, might have been a therapeutic return to form for a creator who has consistently struggled to sustain the grammar of long-form storytelling. But Flip is more of just the same – all style and little substance. Even in shorts ranging from 23 to 43 minutes, it’s primarily the cosmetic treatment, rather than the stories, that defines the length of the plot. The title itself is a hint; Flip alludes to a “twist” in the tale, which makes for the kind of sleight-of-hand narrative trickery that allegedly demands Nambiar’s visual gimmickry. But the indulgence gets tiresome, especially because some of the one-line concepts here are intriguing on a psychological level.

The first short, The Hunt, presents somewhat of a dystopian world in which a strange hunting game becomes an allegory for institutional violence and PTSD. This is perhaps the most thought-provoking short of the lot, given the quasi-sci-fi union of form (hunters don army overalls and have their “statistics” recorded like video-game opponents) and social positioning (the targets are a tribe of flawed, desperate humans who seem to have been abandoned in a jungle). The slow-motion chases and tragic deaths aren’t entirely a hindrance in the great outdoors, but much of the subtext is undone by an on-your-nose final voiceover. We also get a first glimpse of the filmmaker’s fetish for the smoking woman – a close-up shot that fixates on smoke stylishly curling out from her lips and nostrils for dramatic effect. This can just pass off, given The Hunt’s preoccupation with a female protagonist. Versions of this are repeated, mostly out of context, in the third short (Massage) and the last one (Happy Birthday), where the ladies saddled with this sensual responsibility have virtually no bearing on the male-centric narratives.

The second short, Bully, is a dark comedy that centers on an under-confident, married man (Ranvir Shorey) whose problems stem from a childhood bullying incident. The money shot, of course, is an exercise in absurdist existentialism – that of the man in a rabbit suit standing under a shower while the water cascades across his charred fur. There are some interesting ideas about the psychology of trauma, but much of his experience – which climaxes at a party – is amplified and repetitive. And, ironically, stretched…even in a short film. Ditto for the third and most overbearing short, Massage, that hinges on a Parsi loverboy (Jim Sarbh) whose picture-perfect life gets upturned after a pre-wedding celebratory massage goes wrong. The banter is never-ending, and at more than 40 minutes, it’s hard to digest Sarbh as a bitter, foul-mouthed paraplegic in the “second half” of the film.

The fourth, Happy Birthday, goes south even faster. The story of a man (Arjun Mathur) overcome by superstition – the number 4 is his doom – on his birthday could have been quirky, but in its desperation to thrive on banal chaos, the film becomes a mangled mess whose vanity supersedes its purpose. Particularly frustrating is a living-room drinking session, where random showdowns and jilted girlfriends keep disrupting his flashbacks; the scene is framed with no sense of timing, almost as if somebody forgot to tell the cameras to stop rolling.

The prospect of Flip not flipping a bird at us is a sad one. The stage was set. The digital medium should be freeing creators like Nambiar from the shackles of their compromised visions. In hindsight, Shaitan’s famous Khoya Khoya Chand shootout sequence pretty much sums up the empty elegance of its maker’s voice.

Rating:   star

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