Director: Sudhanshu Saria
Cast: Shantilal Mukherjee, Phuden Sherpa
DOP: Achyutanand Dwivedi
Editor: Sudhanshu Saria
Streaming on: MUBI

Knock Knock Knock, a 38-minute short film by Sudhanshu Saria, opens with an old Bengali man at a cafe. He is designing a crossword puzzle by hand. We recognise the cafe from the movies (Barfi!): it’s in Darjeeling, and there’s a clock tower opposite it. The man’s attention (the sound design tries hard to be noticed) is interrupted by an energetic Nepali boy. The boy is a tattoo artist; he’s fascinated by the man’s routine. The boy believes he has found a friend, a kindred soul, who believes in patterns and rituals (“I buy things in threes”) that debunk the randomness of the world.

He explains that the 5 tables and 7 lamps on the balcony of the cafe aren’t arbitrary numbers – there’s a scientific answer. He explains why the cafe is placed at the fork of two streets leading to the clock tower. It has something to do with parabolas. When the old man says he has been sitting at the same table in the same cafe at the same time of the year for 22 years, the boy reveals his age: 22. They discuss the balance of energy on the table; the man taps thrice in a corner (knock knock knock) to prove his theory.

Their conversations are strange, the kind of strange that blurs the line between enigma and pretension. I wanted to dig deeper, but the film goes out of its way to stay distant to the viewer and personal to the maker. The eerie chemistry between the contrasting protagonists aside, it’s hard – and futile – to look for coherent meaning or premise. Later, we see the man jogging oddly – in rhythmic skips of three, like the horse piece moving on a chess board – with the boy joining him and chatting about energy loops.

For a film that frames the mythical language of randomness as an abstract psychological thriller, it’s ironic that Knock Knock Knock feels like a random stab at genre fluidity. I never quite got into it. It’s coldly curious, and the filmmaking (like the boy) interrupts the languid storytelling. The performances, too, feel like the characters are hyper-aware of the camera. I suppose that’s the intention at times, maybe it adds to the mood. But it’s human instinct to want to connect to a work of art rather than just be immersed in it. It’s natural to get impatient with a film that’s too long to be a short and too short to be a feature. 

I did find myself grasping at different interpretations. I liked the idea of their chemistry – the sort that misfits share, and the sort that loners concoct when they get too divorced from reality. Mental illness wears different masks. In some way the boy is like an excitable pup destined to invade the energy of a wry veteran. He’s a tattoo artist because he hopes to ink permanent patterns on strangers, and this is the one time he gets under the skin of a “client”. The man designs crosswords – the craft of letters – because words and feelings are a sport to him. A spelling mistake triggers the conflict here (or is it the resolution?), which is reminiscent of the mislettered title of Saria’s first film (Loev).

The final shot of the film at the cafe is eye-catching, though I can’t for the life of me connect the dots. Maybe I’m not meant to. Ditto for much of what precedes it, even as Darjeeling plays the most interesting role in recent memory. Perhaps it’s a classic case of the filmmaker being so familiar with his own concept that he almost assumes the viewers to be at the same level; it’s like visually translating a book onto the screen in a way that assumes everyone has read the book and therefore in a position to get the subtext. But the text is what needs adaptation. In the end, the central philosophy – of nothing being random – is most reflected in the title: It has three Knocks because two would have made it a Knock Knock joke.

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