This has been an exhilarating week for cinephiles. The storm that was Ship of Theseus barely abated, now Ajay Bahl’s debutant BA Pass, after picking up four awards and five nominations at the festival circuit, is on the brink of release. If Ship of Theseus was unabashedly cerebral, BA Pass is unapologetically visceral. Based on a short story, The Railway Aunty, by Mohan Sikka from the Delhi Noir anthology, the movie is an exploration of desire and despair; calling it a story about a young man sucked into a whirl of high-class prostitution would be putting it blithely. Mukesh, played by Shadab Kamal, lives with his two sisters at their aunt’s place after his parents have passed away. But this is not about the pathos of a lower-middle class family. A timid Mukesh is at first seduced by a woman known to him as Sarika ‘aunty’, played by Shilpa Shukla, who is also the wife of his uncle’s boss.
For a movie that is testing waters with its provocative storyline, that first seduction is surprisingly swift. One moment, he’s outside her door for a chore, and in the next, she’s unbuckling his trousers.
The seedy lanes of Paharganj are back as an ideal setting for this neo-noir thriller. Ajay Bahl, who grew up in Delhi and is well-acquainted with Paharganj, is totally at home while mapping out the daily battles of a woebegone family. As an erotic human drama unfolds between Sarika and Mukesh, we realise it’s forged on nothing but lust, lies and deceit. If, at this point, you’re pining for some kind of reprieve, a glimmer of hope for Mukesh’s and his sisters’ future, you’ll be taken for a ride.
Sarika initiates him into ‘servicing’ other women from her network, and that’s how a reluctant Mukesh starts making some money.
A brilliant thing about BA Pass is that we never realise the downward spiral it’s taking Mukesh into. The film is populated with loathsome characters. None of them earns our sympathy, except for Mukesh’s sisters; in fact, the one character we begin to trust is a bit of a backstabber in the end. And the reason we don’t sympathise with the lead protagonist, Mukesh, is that he’s in a hell of his own making.
The movie may be set in Paharganj — the newfound mise en scene for anything gritty — but it’s not just another warmed-over offering in Bahl’s case. For one, it’s not very often that you expect a film that has the same person as the director, producer and cinematographer to tether quite well. Rarer still is one that is breathtakingly good.
The streets are not simply glanced over but lived in, by the protagonists, their families, their worlds. Night and day play out polar opposite dramas here. If in one seemingly humorous scene, you chuckle at the street gigolo doling out advice to Mukesh on his price, soon enough, it turns into a gut-wrenching episode where Mukesh is forced into a car and brutally raped. If only, you wish, that this would be the lowest point in Mukesh’s life. Alas, it’s not.
Shilpa Shukla is striking in her portrayal of a femme fatale. She’s standoffish yet stiflingly desirable, and her seduction is swift and vicious. There are some cold-hearted dramas to watch out for in this film, including a particularly gruesome scene where Sarika is raped by her husband, in front of her toy-boy. The most eerie part is that it feels all too real, like just another episode in a dystopian society. The real merit of the film, however, is that it does not take a moral high ground. This is a movie that stays with you. Go watch it in a dimly-lit, old world cinema hall for maximal pleasure.