If analyzed closely, most transgressions can be traced to one discomfiting human emotion – being desperate. Because desperation makes us do things, we normally wouldn’t. And fewer things can be more terrifying than not knowing to what extent one would stoop. In the film B.A. Pass, Mukesh’s (Shadab Kamal) desperation comes much later. What comes first is helplessness.
Barely 18-years-old, Mukesh is an orphan who is living at his Bua’s house. It’s a life devoid of any dignity – Mukesh is cash strapped, and getting money from his Bua isn’t easy. Depending on the occasion, he is either the house’s servant or its neglected, looked down upon inhabitant. And, he doesn’t appear very academically inclined too. The degree, Bachelor of Arts, which he’s pursuing wouldn’t lead to a comforting future either. Like most 18-years-old, he’s stuck.
One afternoon, he goes to meet his Bua’s friend, Sarika, to get a crate of apples. Sarika is a rich urban housewife in her early 30s. She can make boys like Mukesh uncomfortable not just because she’s sexually attractive, but because she knows that she’s sexually attractive. Just acquiring an intimidating trait is not enough; it’s the knowledge of possessing that trait, which makes a lot of people dangerous.
Mukesh is soon sucked into a sexual relationship with Sarika. The sexual dynamics between the protagonists are immediately arresting – the boy is 18, a complete stranger to sexual joys, which might even assume mythical proportions for him. So, while the boy approaches this relationship with an apprehension of an over eager apprentice, on the other hand, Sarika approaches the same relationship with an expertise of a bored master. It’s usually common to come across relationships where both partners are on a roughly same emotional, sexual plane, but here there’s a strange courtship between the unfamiliar and the overtly familiar. Behl doesn’t delve into this space particularly, but the movie’s often interesting source material (a short story The Railway Aunty, written by Mohan Sikka) keeps pointing us towards that direction.
Buoyed by Sarika, Mukesh soon dives into a string of licentious relationships with a host of other married ladies. He resists first, but then the money is good. And, here was another tangent that was just begging to be explored by Behl – the strange passion bereft lives of a lot of urban housewives. A sad, hopeless life that’s only embellished a little by sporadic, meaningless sex. Here, my mind kept wandering from Mukesh’s travails to those ladies who were living a decadent dual life. And, this tangent doesn’t spring out of isolation. Our society gives us the saddest, most morally corrupt stories. After a particular sexual encounter, a lady dismissively throws a bunch of notes at Mukesh. Some heightened joys do spawn guilt — sometimes with false brazenness, at times with confused anger. With a running time of less than 100 minutes, I would have liked the aforementioned asides to be dealt in a lot more detail.
But, even as the movie leaps from one strange world to another, it’s consistently gripping, and is audacious enough to incessantly probe into Mukesh’s increased depravity. It is also to Behl’s credit that he makes the regression of his protagonist believable. The tropes of urban depravity, especially in a story like this, could hardly be inventive, but that strangely works for the movie. Behl drops a hint and we instantly know what is going to happen next, and that is chilling – the premonition of something undesirable. Also, it’s a pretty tricky terrain to tread on, this progressive deterioration of the protagonist, because in such a case, it’s very easy to be pulled out of the story because of its uni-dimensionality, but it doesn’t happen here.
Behl also lends a lot of visual flair to the movie. Be it the shot of Mukesh walking back to his friend’s house at dawn, where the frame is beautifully blue – a unique diptych — or the shot of him standing alone in a speeding metro where we see him from far. It also helps that the movie is set in Paharganj, a place that acquires two vastly different characters during day and night. Although this can be true for a lot of localities or cities, but fewer places exhibit such a marked shift in character in just a couple of hours. During the day Paharganj, in the movie, looks malleable, submissive, its myriad huge billboards appearing both discordant and meaningless, but in the night, the same billboards suddenly spring to life, a lot surer in their new avatar, thus giving the place not only a sense of purpose but also a diabolical seductiveness.
Behl quite adroitly takes us through Mukesh’s grim journey throughout the movie but stutters at the climactic point. Complex, personal journeys never lead to clichéd, superficially grim and lazy resolutions, because, most of the times there are no resolutions. The false notes begin making their presence: moments that leap from the screen uncharacteristically borne out of a misplaced desire to tie things at the end. You have infused life into your characters, now let them wade through their cesspool themselves, do not become their God. Just let them be, you want to scream. But then no one is listening.Follow @Plebeian42