At an Alliance Francaise festival of documentaries last year, I chose to go on the day devoted to ‘Love and Desire in India’. A considerable number of films revolved around dancing girls, prostitutes, transexuals, gay people. Sadly, when you watch several films one after the other, that too on similar subjects, you begin to get weary. You know the story lines, the characters, the poverty and the life circumstances of the protagonists, and the genuine attempts by the filmmakers to get up close. As one film follows another, one’s cynicism quotient goes up by several notches. You think I don’t want to see yet another bar girl, dancing queen, eunuch telling me their life story.
And then, you meet Ranu. And with her, you meet Shyamal. Early on in the film, Shyamal puts his hand on her butt as he pushes her up a steep path on Sinhagad. You sit up and say, “What’s this?” Suddenly, the first shot begins to make sense, where Shyamal comes down a dark corridoor, gun in hand, and holds it up to Ranu’s head. The film is about Ranu, but Shyamal intrudes into the frame, deliberately self-conscious and facetious at times, vulgar, crude, provocative. He underlines his ‘falseness’ and in contrast, Ranu shines true.
Ranu is a star. She is pretty despite a large part of her body being scarred by burns, which she inflicted on herself in a suicide attempt at 14. She is super-confident, believing that she can get any man she chooses. And she’s had more than her fair share of men. She sings in shady nightclubs, but insists that she is an ‘international’ singer because she often goes on assignments abroad. She does not defend her lifestyle, she makes no excuses for the choices she has made. She prides herself on being tough and needing no one, not caring for what anyone has to say about her. And yet, she breaks down in tears at Shyamal’s betrayal.
Shyamal offers no clues about his betrayal. He has rejected her offer of marriage, yes. He has refused to sleep with her. He is close to her, and attracted to her, and yet, finally he is the film maker, he is the one making the decisions. He is the one who chooses to show her naked, burnt body when what she wants is for the audience to see her at her decked-up best. Perhaps that is his betrayal of their special friendship.
Shyamal Karmakar in his write-up for the film ‘I am the very beautiful’ says “If a human being is the best plot, then Ranu is one thick plot.” Shyamal has shot her over 6 years and seen her move from one relationship to another. But his own relationship with Ranu does not escape inspection. Can a man and a woman really be friends? Can a poor, uneducated girl and a middle-class, educated film maker really trust each other?
The dilemma that troubles most, perhaps all documentary film makers, is how to resolve the ethical conflict between getting up close to a subject, and yet, keeping that distance required to film. One’s sensitivity is always questionable as one watches someone bare, cry, spill their guts out, and while you empathize, a part of you revels in having captured a ‘moment’. Poverty, squalor, misery, hope, courage make good documentary subjects but the filmmaker who turns the spotlight on them is often securely hidden in the darkness outside the frame.
Shyamal enters the frame with his subject, and dares to bare his own vulnerability. When he chooses to film a bar singer, he also chooses to film his own fascination for her. Documentary film makers are always asked this question at screenings, “Are you still in touch with your subjects?” They are expected to be interested in the people they have filmed in perpetuity, perhaps an unreasonable demand. With Ranu and Shyamal, the audience feels that curiosity about both the filmmaker and his subject. At the end of the film, you wonder not only about what happened to Ranu next, but also about what happened to Shyamal after the filming was over.