Today’s cinema takes its inspiration from life around, and although the stories they tell may not be original in a sense -- for we would have seen them playing out in television news channels -- such narratives can be nonetheless gripping. For, if you fictionalise fact, what emerges can be fascinating. Jiju Antony’s Malayalam work, Eli Eli Lama Sabachhani? (The Forsaken), borrows primarily from the brutal Nirbhaya rape and murder case that rocked Delhi and the rest of India a few of years ago. It was the viciousness of the culprits (one of them was a teenager, and he is said to have been the most violent of the lot), who not only raped a young girl but also killed her in an unimaginably brutal way.
Antony’s movie -- which was screened the other day as part of the ongoing National Film Development Corporation of India’s Film Bazaar (running along with the International Film Festival of India) here -- goes beyond rape and murder to show us how his protagonist, Prashant (played by Sanal Aman from the National School of Drama) turns into a beast. Dividing his movie into several chapters -- each distinguished by a different hue -- he elaborates on the gruesome incident of how Prashant, a taxi driver, takes a couple (necking each other) to a lonely stretch in Mumbai, beats the man into unconsciousness, rapes the woman and bludgeons her to death. Prashant is like an animal in rage.
The Forsaken starts with a hanging in a jail, and we watch a desperately hapless Prashant writhing in mental agony as he is literally dragged by policemen to the gallows. This scene is repeated at the end for dramatic effect, which the director carries out with a touch of engaging attention to detail.
But before the ghastly crime actually happens, we are witness to a Prashant -- who as a boy sees domestic violence (his mother being raped by his father), and experiences hurt and humiliation as a grown-up man. His rich employer, a woman who hires him to drive her car, ridicules Prashant when he uses the family’s toilet or when he forgets to buy flowers from the market. She seems unusually haughty and sarcastic.
At another time, Prashant is shamed by the prostitute he visits -- when he suffers from performance anxiety.
The film conveys in no uncertain terms that Prashant is a victim of an unfeeling society that turns an innocent boy into a fire-breathing monster -- who would not flinch to kill with a kind of bestial force that seems as a release for all his pent-up frustrations. Interestingly, he presents a picture of external calm.
In a chat with this writer here at the Bazaar, Antony -- who has taken a break from an executive assignment in Dubai to spend time with his autistic son (nine now) -- says that before starting to shoot his debut work, The Forsaken, he had not even been to a movie set. “But being at home, I had this great privilege of following news and discussing it with my wife. When Nirbhaya was brutalised, and when other women in an abandoned Mumbai mill (here a journalist was attacked) and in Kerala (a poor, low caste girl fell prey) suffered at the hands of perverted men, I decided to make a film,” Anthony avers.
In a way, while spending a lot of time with his child, Antony began to wonder why the innocence of childhood mutates into criminality. “I think the community a child grows up in is largely responsible for turning a boy into a rapist, pushing him to the precipice of frustrated dejection -- a point from where he finds it almost impossible to walk away.”
The movie “is nothing but a kind of soul searching... I have tried to address several implications of how societal influences can do irreparable harm to a child... As an infant, as a teenager, as an adult,” Antony explains.
Also, economic and social disparities push a child into a confusing abyss. “We were shooting in Mumbai, near actor Shah Rukh Khan’s house, and I was appalled to see slums just next to his bungalow... All this contributes to anger, which can lead to a tipping point in a man’s life. Prashant was a product of such uncaring society.”
There are other provocations, and Antony talks about the negative impact of Bollywood. “I had this song, Sheela Ki Jawani, playing in the background, and I have also inserted a scene where we see girls talk about Salman Khan’s handsomeness... All these can destabilise the mind of a man.” And the environment he has grown up in or where he is then living can have a huge influence on his thought and action.
Prashant was helpless victim of such a community, and Antony’s English title, The Forsaken, is apt. The helmer implies strongly how the child, the teen and the man in his work are pushed into a hopelessly dark pit. An escape from there is possible only for a price. The price may be ghastly, and The Forsaken appears to be telling us this.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Film Bazaar.)