‘Performing’ Misogyny, CRD?

What explains the applause and critical acclaim that the film CRD received, in India and abroad? As this article analyses, not only is its form and dalliance with issues of art and politics pretentious, it is blatantly misogynistic.

CRD directed by Kranti Kanade and released in India in September 2017 was hailed in national and international media as a ground breaking, even revolutionary film. There is a consensus that its unconventional form and  “radical” technique gives us a  “brave new”  “iconoclastic” film.  If the social/ mainstream media echo chamber is to be believed, independent, experimental cinema, had finally arrived in India! CRD’s fame preceded its release. Made in 2014, it did the rounds of festivals as is the norm for non-mainstream films before it came to India a year after its official release in 2016. Publicity posters quoting from the international press such as the Hollywood Reporter and Los Angeles Times declared the film to be entrancing, allusive, enchanting etc. 

After all the hype, CRD disappoints. First, it is silly and tiresome, since, beneath its pretentious form and dalliance with questions of art and politics, lurks a conventional narrative of a tussle between two men for power, prestige and of course, the girl. Second, its worldview is banally misogynist.

 
CRD is based on an actual cultural phenomenon, the amateur theatre scene in Pune city centred on the Purshottam Karandak (trophy), a college theatre competition.  Every year the Karandak provides a platform to numerous students from the city’s various colleges, and at least a few writers/actors in Marathi have whetted the tools of their trade in this cultural arena. At the same time, to put it in perspective, it needs to be noted that if for a few students the trophy becomes all important,  the number of such students is miniscule. Of the students from different linguistic backgrounds in Pune city, a minority is involved in the theatre scene, and an even smaller number, who are speakers of Marathi, can participate in the Purshottam Karandak, which is a Marathi theatre competition. However, the film’s languages-  Hindi, English, French--, bestow a  “global” veneer on what is essentially a minor extra-curricular opportunity for local youth seeking to hone their skills en route to television or movie jobs. Be that as it may, the film maker/co-writer team Kranti Kanade and Dharmakirti Sumant have clearly drawn on their personal experience of the Karandak. Sumant is known to have had a successful run as a writer/director during his college years and has subsequently established himself as one of the promising young writers in Marathi.  Kanade, on the other hand, recalls his disappointment in being shown the door when he offered to write a play, similar to the rejection initially faced by the film’s eponymous protagonist, Chetan Ranjit Deshmukh (CRD). 

The film’s narrative, revolving around a group of college students preparing to participate in the Karandak, tracks Chetan’s (Saurabh Saraswat) aspirational journey. Chetan wants to join and write for the group but his offer is rejected even as he is allowed to hang around and learn. Thus, Chetan must assert himself and his fledgling artistic impulse against Mayank’s (Vinay Sharma) aggressive authority. Both Mayank and Chetan desire Persis (Mrinmayee Godbole), the college cultural secretary, and lead actress of the play. There is also Veena (Geetika Tyagi), the pretty French teacher, who, it is revealed, was a student of the same college and active in theatre during her hey days. More importantly, she continues to be involved with the activities of the group, taking auditions etc, even as she pines for Vikram, a talented writer director, who, according to everyone, Chetan resembles. Chetan’s trajectory of self- discovery is triggered by his rebellion against Mayank’s bullying and violent methods with Persis as his hesitant muse, even as he is shadowed by the  “idea” of Vikram!  

Although the film refers to an actual, real life cultural phenomena it self-consciously steers clear of verisimilitude, mobilising instead, an array of visually dazzling images and bizarre, fantastical, at times nightmarish scenarios. Indeed, an arsenal of French New Wave gimmicks is deployed by the film. The narrative is punctuated by film clips, medical documentary footage, stick animation, archival footage of Sartre, interviews with  “real” theatre personalities and so on. It is ironic that a film, which means to reflect on art and politics, and on questions of originality, artistic  “formulae” and  “rebellion” against it, merrily borrows its  “aesthetic formula” from the 1960s European avant-garde cinema. This results in effect, in shocking and distracting the viewers from the commonplaceness of its central narrative triangle involving a bully (Mayank), a new kid on the block (Chetan) and a  “trophy” girl (Persis). Worryingly still, it cynically manipulates the ambiguity produced by its formal maneouvres to camouflage its misogyny. 

Muse or Reward but Never Writer or Director

That the film fails the Bechdel test goes without saying. After all, this is a world where boys/men want to write, direct, tell their stories, dominate cultural spaces, win prizes, find themselves and so on. Girls can act in their plays, but never write or direct. They can also be the muse or the reward as Persis is to Chetan after he proves his mettle on stage in the Purshottam Karandak. Thus, even as Persis unquestioningly continues to follow Mayank’s dictates, Chetan, heroically sets out to form his own group. When, after many a comical and strange encounter and obstacles, Chetan writes and directs a play of his own, Persis, who has been with Mayank, starts softening towards him. And when his play passes the first selection round in the competition, he goes to her house and her  “liberal” father gestures him towards the bedroom for the sex!

What follows is an intimately shot scene of love making; all light and shadow, shapes and colour, a scene which is, unsurprisingly, foreshadowed by an earlier sequence that had Chetan fantasising sex with Persis as a prostitute in a brothel! It is not Persis alone, but all the female characters in the film exist only in relation to the men and their aspirations. They are there to be desired and abused, dumped or rescued by the duo. For example, Dipti (Isha Keskar) who is humiliated by Mayank and removed from his play is later picked up by Chetan to act in his production. Equally, the French teacher, Veena, who is sweetly supportive of Chetan, must face his wrath and weep unconsolably in a  “hypnotically” shot sequence as Chetan verbally abuses her in sexually explicit language. 

It is incredible how much of the  “boldness” of the film takes the form of sexual violence. Mayank, Chetan’s bête noire,  “performs” extreme violence against both, men and women. Not only is he verbally abusive but at different moments, he violently grabs Persis’ breast to make a point about losing inhibition, goads Chetan to  “enact” cunnilingus on his own mother, and  “demonstrates” violent sexual intercourse on a bench in the college volley ball court. To be sure, Mayank’s violence is a point of criticism for the film, since, it is shown to drive Chetan’s search for his individual voice after he dissociates himself from Mayank.  Undoubtedly, youth cultural spaces are beset with power struggles.  These struggles, a reflection of the gender, class, caste and linguistic inequities undergirding our social realities, are likely to be heightened in cultural groups dominated by upper caste males, as tends to be in cities like Pune, Purshottam Karandak being no exception.

However, these quotidian struggles and the ensuing exclusions and frustrations are not indexed by the Mayank/Chetan conflict, which is merely a personal rivalry between two privileged males for cultural leg space and autonomy. It follows therefore that Chetan’s violence when he abuses Veena, grabs Persis by her throat, or puts another character in the film, Dipti on the stage to do a sexy number, is only a shade lighter than Mayank’s. Worse still, if the men misuse and abuse the women in their lives, the women nevertheless docilely accept the role and place given to them. Depressingly, even the teacher, Veena, is stuck in the past yearning for the lost love of a boy, who must have been as self-centred as his present avatar, Chetan. 

To be clear, the film’s performative and visual strategies cleverly pre-empt allegations of misogyny by framing its scenarios of violence in a way that the distinction between  “real and dream”,  “truth and fantasy”,  “performance and life” is blurred. It can then be argued that the film’s skewed gender relations, misogyny, sexual violence are not to be read literally, and that the film, mobilises ambiguity, self-reflexivity, irony and humour to in fact mount a critique of the competitive mania of the Karandak, and the neurotic masculinity that invests in it at any cost. Unfortunately, this does not quite work because the film provides no alternative frames of reference outside its incestuous world of entitled, toxic masculinity.

Despite the narrative breaks, tangential detours, changing styles and registers, Chetan remains the hero of the film, his is the subjectivity the film invites us to identify with and his are the fears and dreams we must understand. He is never ridiculed; his journey of self- discovery is rendered with deadly earnestness. The problem is, the film’s experimental form; the film clips, animation etc., fail to provide a critical distance, reinforcing, instead, the sexism inherent to the narrative. A case in point is the  “monkey” animation. In this rather simplistic stick animation of monkeys, three female monkeys offer their rumps in unison to one male monkey, and then when a stronger monkey arrives on the scene, to him. What is the point of this  “quotation”? Is it the characters’ understanding of gender relations? Or is it the film maker’s  “ironic” observation that the law of the jungle still holds in 21st century Pune! Either way there is no escape.  

The film was advertised as being a critique of  “fascism and competition in the arts”, a claim reiterated by the director on many forums. To be blunt - if an individual is arrogant, dominating, violent even, one may hyperbolically call him  “a fascist”. And if a character in your film is this kind of  “fascist”, he is the  “villain” of the story, but the film is not, therefore, automatically a critique of fascism! And  “competition in the arts”? Puneites, including the writer-director team, know (despite the name dropping- of Foucault, Renoir, Sartre), whatever else Purshottam Karandak is, it is not a platform for art. The juvenile, mediocre productions showcased during the competition in the film are proof enough, whether or not they are being  “ridiculed” by the film.

Thus, Chetan’s final play after he has  “found” himself, a clichéd autobiographical narrative of a troubled boyhood because of a prostitute mother, is not only a fitting end to Chetan’s zero talent  “odyssey” but also reveals the film’s limited grasp of questions of power, politics and art.      

How does one explain the tremendous applause and critical acclaim received by the film? One cannot. There is no accounting for taste, particularly in the times of the dominance of social media and virtuality, where considered opinion, serious thought, illiterate observations, fake news, publicity, emotional outburst and naïve enthusiasm jostle, collapse and bounce off each other, building pressures, feeding manias and setting off trends and hashtags.   

 

 

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