To adapt a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky into a film takes courage. To mould two short stories by the Russian master into a film requires even more courage. But to take up two of Dostoevsky’s most famous short stories, add elements of Munshi Premchand’s Bhoot into a single film and set it up in the milieu of Uttar Pradesh’s major cities – Muzaffarnagar and Lucknow – in the aftermath of the horrific riots of Muzaffarnagar in 2013 requires sheer dare devilry. Film & Television India Institute of India (FTII), Pune alumnus Sharad Raj, in his debut film Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein plunges headlong into this act of dare devilry. The outcome is a film that is quite unique in the way it deals with its subject matter and also is intellectually challenging in its cinematic construction.
The core narrative of Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein involves ‘three stories of love, lust, guilt and redemption’ told by Gulmohar (Rajveer Verma) and Gomti (Archanna Gupta) over four nights set in a deserted city square of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh – India’s largest and politically most significant state and also the one which is deeply fractured along communal and caste lines. The chance meeting between the central characters Gulmohar and Gomti, their coming together and then falling apart through the act of telling their personal stories of angst and trauma is somewhat like an act of purgation. The beauty of the film lies in the fact that these personal stories do not remain confined to the level of the individuals concerned but assumes greater historical and political dimensions. The statement of Gulmohar, “There are countless stories/a story of each person/a history of each person.”, perhaps holds the key to what Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein is all about. The personal story of Gulmohar – the betuka aadmi (ridiculous man) which involves his erotic encounters, betrayal and the guilt that follows the brutal rape and killing of Anita Muslim (Mia Maelzar) – a migrant from Bangladesh who is a sex professional working in Muzaffarnagar– thus also becomes the chronicle of the history of communalism and its implications in the Indian sub-continent. On the other hand, the story of Gomti – who is scarred by an incestuous desires and actions of her foster father (Adil Hussain) – tells the history of the fear and oppression of the Dalit outcastes of Indian/Hindu society and the kind of individual megalomania such oppression generates and the pain suffered by a person who is the victim of such megalomania. In this attempt to combine the personal and the political/historical, the four central characters of Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein go beyond mere characters and assume the dimensions of being archetypes who are deeply rooted in the weltanschauung, zeitgeist and the milieu in which the narrative of Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein is posited.
Because Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Ratein is an effort to combine the personal with the political and the historical, it is apt that the film eschews the traditional cause and effect dramatic form and adopts the ‘epic’ form of storytelling which the late filmmaker Mani Kaul had characterised as one in which, “the narrative is usually very thin, very spread out and at every stage that it develops, it tries to have wider perspectives. Not just concerning the characters but also about nature, history or ideas.” The film’s overall mise-en-scene is in synch with its epic narrative style – the personal stories are shot in long, uninterrupted takes (mise-en-shots or plan/piano sequences) which are in places violently juxtaposed with archival and documentary footage (of communal riots that followed the partition of India, the birth of Bangladesh as an independent nation and the 2013 riots which took place in Muzaffarnagar), screaming television news, advertisements etc. which depict the world beyond the characters and frame the larger context in which the story of Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein is set in.
The road that is rarely traversed which the director of Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein has undertaken to travel and which he asks the viewers of the film to also embark on needs full support of the crew and cast. Fortunately, the film is blessed with such an understanding from the crew and cast members. The four main actors, Archanna Guptaa, Mia Maelzer, Adil Hussain and debutant Rajveer Varma do not ‘act’ in the orthodox sense but come close to resemble what Robert Bresson had termed as ‘human models’ in the sense that they depict, “movement from the exterior to the interior… the thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide.” Arun Varma – another FTII, Pune alumnus and the DOP of the film – is completely in synch with the director’s vision and the film’s story and narrative structure. Varma’s nuanced but multi-hued cinematography not only perfectly captures the mood of the film and its characters and also the beauty of Lucknow and fragments of Muzaffarnagar. The sound design and the music of Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein – the music being based on pure ragas and not composed in the conventional sense – do not highlight or underline the emotional state of the characters or key plot points. Instead, the music and sound design have a sort of dialectical relationship with the visuals and hence attempt to create new meanings and narrative possibilities.
Although the cinematography, sound design and music seems to be perfectly compatible with the overall mise-en-scene of Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein, the film does falter just that bit in the manner in which it has been edited. In certain shots and scenes, the filmmaker and the editor could perhaps have held on to the shot/scene for a few frames more instead of cutting right after the action ends as is the norm. Delaying the cut would have stressed upon the inherent beauty of the image and the poignancy of the film’s story. The scene in which Gomti re-unites with her long lost lover also seems to slightly contrived and too cryptic. A little more visual exploration of the environs of Lucknow and explanation of its syncretic history and culture would have enriched the context in which the film is set.
Finally, Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein is not just a film which is deeply immersed in personal stories and public histories which define the former, it is also a film which is steeped in the history of cinema itself. Quotations and references of master filmmakers such as Alain Resnais, Ritwik Ghatak and Robert Bresson abound in the film. Mercifully such citations do not become superficial embellishments but help to illuminate the story and the characters.
Ek Betuke Aadmi Ki Afrah Raatein is a funded partly through a crowd funding exercise and partly by an independent producer, Saleem Javed of Zaira Entertainment, who should be congratulated for backing such an off-beat film by a first time director. Director, Sharad Raj, deserves kudos for utilizing this opportunity to make a film which is personal, yet is not limited to the subjective but has wider dimensions and meanings and hence makes for a cathartic viewing experience.
Hindi, Bengali, Drama, Color