You may have noticed (or not, whatever) that I don’t typically review first run films. It’s not that I don’t get asked to, though. It’s just that, often, those who are doing the asking haven’t actually taken the time to read my blog to see what kind of films I actually write about before proffering their backyard-shot gore porn epic or whatever. (And, honestly, why would they? It’s a wonder I can get through a simple line edit without wishing a gypsy curse on my own eyeballs.) Happily, this was not the case with Kshay, which is not only in a foreign language and arguably a genre film, but also an Indian film. And gosh knows I’ve written about a whole lot of those.
It also should be noted that Kshay (English title: Corrode) is an independent Indian film. Granted, that may seem like a vague distinction, given that many Indian films are technically independent productions. But in this case, I mean "independent" in the sense that a yank like myself would understand it: in that Kshay is a small-scale, personal film, made outside the commercial mainstream, with the kind of financing that doesn’t require that 50 corporate logos be displayed before its credits. In one happy departure from my stereotypical notions about indie cinema, it does not feature any godawful strummy indie rock on the soundtrack.
The subject of Kshay is obsession, which is fitting, given that, for first time filmmaker Karan Gour, making it was a four year process that involved him not only writing and directing, but also editing, doing sound design and co-composing the score. (And while all of that multitasking no doubt went a long way toward cutting costs, it should also be said that Gour wears all of those aforementioned hats very well.) It tells the story of Chhaya (Rasika Dugal) and Arvind (Alekh Sangal) a young working class couple living in a modest apartment in Bombay. Chhaya displays an artistic bent that presumably chafes with her role as a stay-at-home wife. She is also, when we meet her, distraught over the difficulty she and Arvind are having conceiving.
One day, all of these pressures seemingly come to bear when Chhaya develops a fixation upon a statue of the goddess Lakshmi that she sees for sale in a local shop. The statue’s 15000 Rs price tag puts it well outside of what Chhaya and Arvind can afford on Arvind’s construction worker salary, but Arvind nonetheless says that he will do his best to put some money away for it -- until his employment situation takes a downturn and renders that an impossibility. Chhaya is still unable to let go of the idea of owning the statue -- increasingly seeing it as a panacea that she imagines will set right all that is off-balance in her life -- and begins to obsessively scheme for ways to scrape the money together. This she does to the increasing detriment of both her connection to reality and those around her, until Arvind’s temporary departure in pursuit of a job opportunity sets the stage for a final catastrophic break.
Kshay is a film that wears it’s influences on its sleeve, and the fact that those influences are both well chosen and seminal makes me feel somewhat less obnoxious for name checking them here. For one, Gour’s method of depicting Chhaya’s deteriorating mental state through her physical surroundings -- making her tiny apartment’s shadowy nooks and crannies increasingly seem like fleshy openings into some kind of malignant inner world -- seems like all but an homage to David Lynch’s early features. Kshay’s claustrophobic black and white cinematography and oppressive sound design go even further in establishing that connection, though I think that the bio-ickiness of the visual effects used also amounts to a Cronenberg shout-out. On the other hand, the narrative template, tracing the incremental build up of a female character’s dementia until it blossoms catastrophically during a prolonged period of isolation, seems a clear echo of Polanski’s Repulsion (something of a touchstone film of late, it seems).
Of course, not everything in Kshay is quite so crystalline as its line of influence. And, while I enjoyed the film, I have to admit that it left me with a few questions. For instance, I wasn’t sure if the airborne chunk of pavement that beans Chhaya immediately before she first sees the statue was meant to be the trigger for her obsessive episode (I hope not), or if it was just that the resulting wound came to symbolize for her the deeper spiritual one that she believed would be healed once she owned the statue (preferable). I also felt a little alienated by later scenes that seemed to suggest that Chhaya’s madness was objectively starting to infect those around her. Still, it must be said that I’m guilty of consuming almost exclusively those Indian films that fall within the mainstream, and that those are notoriously hostile to ambiguity in any form. As such, I found it more than a little refreshing to watch a film that began with a likeable and attractive young Indian couple and ended with me being not quite sure what I’d seen.
All in all, Kshay is a fine addition to the long tradition of films depicting women slowly losing their marbles. While it’s normally tempting to view such a film as a commentary on the culture in which it takes place, there is an intimacy and particularity to Kshay that makes me feel I can take a pass on that. What I will say instead is that actress Rasika Dugal -- whose slight filmography includes a prominent role in the Ram Gopal Varma horror film Agyaat -- does a very laudable job of shouldering the burden that the film places on her, which is very nearly the burden of carrying the entire film itself. I’ll also say that the obsessive penny counting that Chhaya does while trying to scrimp the cash together for her prized object does not seem all that far removed from the type of obsessive-by-necessity penny counting that couples like Chhaya and Arvind, scraping by from paycheck-to-paycheck and month-to-month, must do on a daily basis in real life. Many are the connections between people that have been eaten away by such mundane worries. And, as anyone who’s been through it knows, that shit really can drive you crazy.
[NOTE: For those of you who live in Los Angeles, or who will be in Los Angeles in mid-April, or who simply have a lot of disposable income and would like to travel to Los Angeles on a whim, Kshay will be screening on April 14th at the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood as part of the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.]