Ignore the Sex and Cameras. Forget the peeping. Love, Sex Aur Dhokha has a much scarier insight about our society, argues Nisha Susan
YOU CAN go watch Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, Dibakar Banerjee’s set of three short interconnected films, and get excited about sex and video cameras. Surveillance and voyeurism have been hotbutton themes in the art world for a while. And it may seem like popular culture is now following in sweaty excitement. Or you could ignore the camera and sexual transgressions because LSD is signalling a much bigger shift in our society.
Look closely. The film insists you do. But what are you going to do with what you have seen? The Quakers, and their spiritual descendants, Greenpeace, believe that to prevent sin, the virtuous need to bear witness. Superficially, this seems the same as the filmi heroine saying ‘Chhod do. Koi dekh lega’ — someone might see us doing what we clearly enjoy doing. Philosophers will tell you that the Quakers are all about guilt and the heroine’s squeal is about shame. It is this question of shame — a shame rapidly evaporating in our society — with which LSD engages. A runaway couple with a video camera, a romance that unfolds before a supermarket CCTV, a dancer and a journalist who plan a sting together — through these short encounters, LSD tells us we don’t care anymore if anyone sees us doing what we are doing.
And so what is to stop us from doing anything? Bollywood’s new directors have been edging towards this insight with noir, with political cinema, with comedy. Filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee has hit dead centre leaving you with an unsettling cinematic experience.
In his previous films, Khosla Ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! Banerjee lay open the pious, greedy Indian middle-class clutching its possessions to its collapsed chest. He has been sympathetic, not to say sentimental, about the aspirations of the poor. Sympathetic because he believes the middleclass will prevail, still prating niceties. In LSD, a much darker world emerges in which even the middle-class has time only for a few pieties before baring fangs.
In the first short, Banerjee evokes two classics. One, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ), that beloved cotton-candy edifice. The second is an equally beloved sex tape from Karnataka. Banerjee’s protagonist is a film student who falls inevitably in love with the heroine of his diploma film, a tribute to DDLJ. His attempts to charm her brute of a father is inevitable too. The couple run away and get married. As they hide out in a hotel room they look shyly into the eye of their constant companion, the video camera, and say, “Thank you Adi Sir.” This is perhaps the most eerie moment in the film. This is Banerjee reminding filmmaker Aditya Chopra of his legacy of whitewash. Before Chopra, Hindi cinema had plenty of villainish fathers, albeit cartoonish, and destined for a cartoonish routing. However with DDLJ, Chopra taught us to believe that the brutish father, if dealt with tact, will eventually give his approval. In real life, 15 years after DDLJ, families continue to murder their sons and daughters who stray. Banerjee takes the trajectory of the villainish father to its logical end. The young runaways are hacked to death in one of the bleakest sequences of Indian cinema.
BANERJEE’S SECOND cinematic reference is Mysore Mallige, a video made by two lovers a few years ago. Shot over several days in a hotel room, it somehow leaked on the porn circuit where its romantic air earned it a cult following. Mysore Mallige’s unwitting star with her oldfashioned beauty was a revelation to the sensitive and to the jaded. Here was a girl enjoying her nudity and looking affectionately at the camera eye of her lover. Was she for real?
Sexual liberation is the happy byproduct of this age when we don’t care who is looking. LSD’s characters, like all of us, seek sex for all kinds of reasons: for pleasure, comfort, grief, power and money. In the second short, the supermarket boy longs for his supermarket girl. But by the time he gets her, his world has shifted and he is looking over her supine body shamelessly into the camera. Sex may be good with this kind, spunky girl but the tape made without her knowledge would pay off his debts. Who would judge him for making a quick fortune?
Someone said of Banerjee’s digital format with some contempt: shoot anything on video camera and it looks real. But the aesthetic did allow Banerjee to populate his film with non-star bodies. Real here does not equal ugly. The girls in LSD, trying hard to not be ‘a behenji type’, are a little underfed, a little underage, all fragile. And then there are the men, especially in the supermarket short, who have either successfully begun to see these bodies as merchandise or are struggling to do so. LSD’s celebrated ‘look’ does not eclipse its pitch-perfect dialogue. If you were watching LSD in the hall and wondered at the endless nervous laughter from the audience, be assured it is because the movie captures the way we speak without Bollywood’s customary caricature. But it is a wordless transaction in the final short that will remain the longest with you. The dancer stands before a bank of mirrors in hooker chic. In Dev D, Anurag Kashyap’s Paro was memorably asked whether she touches herself. Here the dancer’s hand lingers slowly over her crotch. Besides her stands the sting journalist, her new friend. He is moustached, bespectacled, a fossil in his unadorned plainness. But next to him it is her globalised body that is as strange as a Martian. He must have imagined her touching him the day before.
It is also in this final short film that LSD reveals its real quest most plainly. Its protagonist tells his TEHELKA-like tale of having paid the price for a sting too well done. And now he is being pushed into the role of a blackmailer. Can the seeing eye of his hidden camera still tell the truth or has it too been subverted? Banerjee does not grandstand. Instead his agenda emerges in innuendo about stings, the emphasis on the word ‘tehelka’ used over and over as a common noun. Via the crassness of the television producer he refracts the middle-class discomfort with sting journalism. This discomfort is not with surveillance or voyeurism or with the intrusiveness of new technology, as people claim. The middle-class has taken joyfully to watching the inappropriate: weddings for money, seductions for TRPs, catfights, lies, schoolgirl sex MMSes and shows like Emotional Atyachaar in which fidelity is tested on air.
None of this viewing makes the middle- class squirm but they must have a few days ago when Teesta Setalvad screened afresh the TEHELKA footage of the Gujarat sting — as the story of Narendra Modi and the SIT gains heat. Stings make the middle-class twitch as if a faux pas had been committed. The sting hurts, not because it is new, but because it is a prickly remnant of an old social contract that we keep hoping has lapsed. Go ahead and look at me if you must but who are you to ask that I be ashamed?