Saturday, June 24, 2017

Phobia—Of Birds and Cages

Phobia, directed by Pawan Kripalani, is quite a sophisticated horror film as compared to other Hindi films in the genre. The film is the story of an artist Mehak (Radhika Apte), who after being assaulted by a taxi driver, suffers from agoraphobia—fear of open spaces. Her friend Shaan (Satyadeep Mishra) makes her move to a new apartment so that she can get treated. The apartment building is full of weird and creepy people. Mehak starts seeing an apparition, which she thinks is of Jiah, the earlier tenant who used to stay there. However, the reality is far more complicated, and nothing seems to be what is expected. 

Phobia opens with a quote by the great writer Franz Kafka—A cage went in search of a bird. The quote is from Z├╝rau Aphorisms, a collection of aphorisms of Kafka, published by his friend Max Brod, after Kafka's death. Philosophers have interpreted the quote to be related to the themes of freedom and existentialism. In Phobia, Mehak is suffering from agoraphobia where she feels a fear of open spaces, and prefers to stay indoors. She is like a bird trapped in a cage, unable to fly out. Once she moves to the new apartment, she has become caged. Thus, Kafka's quote is befitting to some events in Mehak's life. Not only the quote, all through the film, there are bird-related symbols. At one point, we see that the tattoo on Mehak's nape is that of a bird. The door of the apartment has a statue of a black bird on it. Mehak's entire apartment is filled with decorative items with birds on them. Whether it is the paintings on the wall, or the plates in the kitchen, or the showpieces in her bedroom, everything has birds, giving a clear indication of the state of Mehak as a caged bird. At some point during the end, Shaan tells her that her fight is with herself, "Tumhari ladai khud se hai." The film, thus, is the story of Mehak where she has to fight her inner demons to get freedom from this cage. It is no coincidence that the film ends on Diwali, a festival that celebrates the victory of Ram over Ravan, the king of demons. 
Birds in Mehak's Apartment

In an unrelated context, Zoya Akhtar's Luck By Chance had a similar thing with everything in Sona Mishra's apartment related to birds as well. The shelf contained birds, pigeons, and parrots. The walls had paintings of birds. In a scene before the Baaware song, Sona and Nikki Walia are sitting together, with shiny birds in front of them. At some other point, Vikram comes to Sona's apartment and picks up a bird that had fallen off. He is also wearing a shirt with a bird on it. When Vikram meets Shah Rukh Khan later, he is again wearing a shirt with flying birds on it. Though the context in Luck By Chance is entirely different from Phobia, the underlying theme of flying away from your struggles is there in both the films. 
Birds in Luck By Chance
At some stage in the film, the psychotherapist tells Mehak, "Tumne jo kuch bhi dekha, sirf tumhara bhram hai. Tumhare andar reality aur imagination ke beech jee tod ladai chal rahi hai." Whatever she has seen, it is an illusion. There is a fight between reality and imagination in Mehak's mind. The thing to note about this conversation is that that the psychotherapist is herself using a technique related to imaginary reality—virtual reality— to treat Mehak; a method in which the person imagines that she is in a different world. It is this part for which I am struggling to come up with a rational explanation. For instance, note the scene when Mehak wears the virtual reality headset for the first time. When she is at the grocery store, the first thing we see is a poster of Spiderman. When she takes off the headset, her sister's son Joey is also wearing a Spiderman mask. When Mehak is asked to wear the headset for the second time, she visits a mall. In this second time, too, the first thing we see in the mall is a boy walking away with a Spiderman balloon. Clearly, the appearance of Spiderman in both the instances is not a coincidence. At other moments in the film, there are spiders creeping up the paintings in Mehak's apartments. When Nikki comes back from Manu's place, she says there were too many spiders under his bed. Perhaps, the film is trying to blur the boundaries between reality and imagination by using the same elements in both the cases. Someone could have a more lucid explanation but there is some implicit point that the film is trying to make by using virtual reality. Mehak does not need any virtual reality therapy because she can already experience another virtual reality in which she can see the future. 
Spiderman and Spiders
There are a lot of other details for trivia collectors in the film. The apartment where Mehak stays has the nameplate belonging to Kripalani; no surprises there as the film's director is Pavan Kripalani. The apartment building is called the Overlook Apartments, a tribute to the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. When Nikki comes to meet Mehak, she is wearing a shirt that has Bhoot Raja Bahar Aaja written on it. The paintings in Mehak's apartments are, actually, famous paintings. There is Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth. The opening scene of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds was a tribute to this painting. Other notable paintings in her apartment include paintings by artists Vilhelm Hammershoi and Roy Lichtenstein. At some other point, Shaan mentions a list of notable celebrities suffering from agoraphobia, which includes people, such as Woody Allen, Sigmund Freud, and Paula Dean. He is about to mention an Indian name but we never get to hear it. I could not find any Indian celebrity suffering from agoraphobia, except possibly Parveen Babi, who locked herself in her last days; though to be fair, she was suffering from schizophrenia. Another interesting thing was the film opens with an exhibition of Mehak's paintings and there is a biography of her. In that she says, her husband asked her to try painting, though we never get to hear any background about him in the film. 
Bhoot Raja Bahar Aaja
Paintings by Andrew Wyeth, Vilhelm Hammershoi, and Roy Lichtenstein
Phobia has some genuine chilling moments. It combines conventional tropes of the horror genre with certain new elements, with a strong feminist subtext. It is also quite futuristic in the sense that some of the concepts in it were used later in films, such as Arrival (the ability to see the future), and House of Cards (virtual reality therapy). It deserves to be seen, if nothing, then, for the exceptional performance of its lead actress, Radhika Apte, who is brilliant in every scene. 
Other Reading:
1. The feminist subtext in PhobiaLink
2. Phobia's script for some deleted scenes—Link

Dialogue of the Day:
"Tumhare andar reality aur imagination ke beech jee tod ladai chal rahi hai. Please remember, agar tumne apne dar ko confront nahin kiya, to wo aise hi badhta jaayega."
—Dr. Khanna, Phobia

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Trapped—Survival of the Fittest

As a school-going kid, one of my nightmares was getting locked in a classroom just the day before the school closes for the two-month-long summer vacation. It is a terrifying feeling to be locked all alone in the school. I remember watching Sapnon Ka Mandir, starring Jaya Prada and Jeetendra, in which a kid gets trapped in his classroom before his vacations. The kid eats banana peels and chalk to survive. Fortunately, a blind beggar is able to save the kid in that film. There have been other brilliant human survival films. Trapped, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane, is another survival tale. It is the story of Shaurya (Rajkummar Rao), who works at a travel company in Mumbai. He likes a girl Noorie (Geetanjali Thapa) who works in his office. After a brief courtship, he asks her to move in with him to a new place. A shady property dealer tricks him into accepting an apartment on the thirty-fifth floor of an Adarsh-housing-society-scam-type building where no one else lives. Happy to find an apartment at a reasonable rent and in a short time, Shaurya shifts to the building. However, after spending his first night there, he gets trapped as the apartment door gets jammed. Murphy's law, which states that 'whatever can go wrong, will go wrong', comes into force and Shaurya cannot get out. It is ultimately left to him to devise a plan for his freedom. Rajkummar Rao as Shaurya delivers an exceptionally brilliant performance, that will be remembered for a really long time. 
At an early stage in the film, when Shaurya is moving to his new apartment, he tells his roommates that he is going home for a few days. His disinterested roommates are watching World of the Wild on a channel called Wild TV. The host of the show, a man inspired by Steve Irwin, is explaining ways to survive a difficult situation. He can be heard saying, "Never give up. Adventure is not about what happens out there. It is about what happens in here. The brave survive. The weak, they die." These lines effectively capture the film's theme and will ultimately become the motto that helps Shaurya survive his ordeal. His entrapment in the apartment is just like an adventurous encounter, as if it is another episode of Man Vs. Wild. The wilderness, though, is his own apartment which turns out to be as intimidating as a wild creation of nature. At a later stage in the film, the host again shows up in a hallucination of Shaurya. The host tells him about Charles Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest—the principle of natural selection, postulating that those who are eliminated in the struggle for existence are the unfit. During the last few scenes, Shaurya is again watching the same TV show when he is eating paav-bhaaji. The host tells him the famous Nietzschean quote about the abyss and gives his own version of it. He says, "When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. But what I say is when the abyss looks at you funny, punch the abyss in the face." The TV host's sayings become a guiding force for survival. And, as he advised that the brave survive by never giving up, Shaurya never gave up and survived. Even the film's poster says, "Freedom lies beyond fear."
What is also noteworthy is the film's portrayal of irony. The word shaurya means courage, and ironically, the character Shaurya gets scared by hearing the squeaks of a rat. Perhaps, that is why we see a cat drawn on the door of his room. The building where Shaurya moves is named Swarg Apartments. Swarg means heaven, and ironically, his stay at the apartment will turn out to be not a heavenly experience, but something closer to hell. When Shaurya enters the apartment, there is a 'Welcome' sign written using decorative paper strips. As it turns out, this welcome would be so nightmarish that he won't even be able to get out. At a later stage, when Shaurya is hungry, he eats the remaining few pieces from the pack of biscuits he had brought along with him. We see that it is Good Day; as if there could be any other brand so befitting to ironically depict how his day was going. 
There is another moment in the film when Shaurya is lying beside a cockroach. The cockroach has turned upside down and is struggling to get back on its feet. He tries to help the cockroach, but somehow, it manages to turn itself back on its own. Shaurya keeps watching the cockroach's struggle, and then, he also decides to get up on his own feet; perhaps, getting some inspiration from it. At a later point, he sees the cockroach at the same place but it has died. It is seeing the cockroach in that state that he realizes that he, too, will die there. But he does not want to die, so, he gets pumped up to get out of the building.

Trapped also reminds us of other survivor dramas, such as 127 Hours and Life of Pi. But, somehow, the one film that kept coming to my mind was Room. Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, Room is the story of Joy and her five-year-old son Jack who live in a shed they call the Room. Joy and Jack are captives of a man they call Old Nick, Jack's biological father, who abducted Joy seven years prior and routinely rapes her. Once a day, Joy and Jack scream as loud as they can, hoping that someone can hear them. In Trapped, Shaurya, too, tries every trick to make his voice heard, but as he says, no one can hear him, or pretends to not hear even if they can. In Room, after Joy and Jack are released, they go for a visit for one last time to the room where they had spent seven years of their life. When Shaurya manages to escape from the building, he also visits the same apartment where he was trapped. Perhaps, as a way to gain some closure or as a reminder of something that changed the course of his life forever.
Suketu Mehta, in his book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, writes, "All great cities are schizophrenic said Victor Hugo. Mumbai has multiple personality disorder." There is a certain romanticism associated with the city of Mumbai, and it is often called as the city of dreams. But there is a darker underbelly associated with the city, too. Trapped shows this other side of Mumbai—harsh, uncaring, and aloof. People don't listen to you. People try to scam you. Since every inch of horizontal space has been occupied, it can only grow vertically. And, as it moves up vertically, it becomes even more and more distant. 

The scenes about the food choices and beef ban seem a little out of place in the film. It was making a political point as well given the recent news regarding bans on certain food items. The sequence where it starts rain raining, and where Shaurya talks to the rat are some of my favorite portions in the film. I was also intrigued by the relationship of Shaurya and God. Shaurya was a God-fearing person. He took the picture of Hanuman with him to his new place. He does not eat non-vegetarian food because he feels it is not right. In the end, he keeps staring at the picture of Radha-Krishna when he is about to eat paav-bhaaji. I kept thinking what was going on in his mind. Did he believe in God anymore given the ordeal he went through? He never ate non-vegetarian food and still this happened to him, so, did this change his belief in having a moral code? Or, was he just thanking God for getting out. 
Vikramaditya Motwane's earlier films—Udaan and Lootera—also exhibited the theme of entrapment, both literal and metaphorical. The word udaan, which means flight, can be described as the antonym of the word trapped. In Lootera, Pakhi thinks that her life is trapped in the last leaf of a tree as if it is a tota (parrot) from the Bheel Raja ki Kahaani that her father used to tell her. At a surface level, Trapped is about a man getting trapped in an apartment, but the film is also about other entrapments. Five minutes in the film, Noorie tells Shaurya that she is getting married to some other guy. Immediately after this, the film's title Trapped appears on a black screen as if hinting that this is the beginning of some kind of entrapment. I remember reading a piece by Priya Ramani on Tanu Weds Manu Returns where she had written about Tanu. She had explained, "When she (Tanu) leaves him (Manu), her relief is palpable. Her curly hair, tied in a bun, comes undone. The film-maker probably meant it to symbolize her return to her wild former self but as a fellow curly-haired person, I can guarantee it was as much about the respite of not being around Manu." Interestingly, we see a version of it in Trapped as well. Noorie has her hair always untied when she and Shaurya are seeing each other. However, in the last few scenes, when she comes back, her hair is tied in a bun, not only as a mark of her being married but also as another symbol of being trapped in relationships, like the film's theme. The end credits say that the property dealer's name was Hawk McNab as if this another kind of entrapment where the dealer was like a hawk waiting to trap Shaurya as his prey. 
Hawk McNab
Trapped is also about our entrapments and the loneliness of the modern day city life. We have become slaves of technology, living in our own cocoons. In the wonderful opening lines of Lage Raho Munnabhai, RJ Jhanvi summarizes it beautifully. "Internet se duniya me toh touche me hai, lekin pados me kaun rehta hai, jaante tak nahi. Agar yahi jeena hai, toh phir marna kya hai." We are trapped in relationships; trapped in the daily mundane routine; trapped in the struggle to make a living; trapped in the rules of the society; trapped in something we are not (as we saw in Tamasha). In the film's very last scene, Shaurya revisits the apartment where he had been trapped. He is looking out of the window from where he escaped and the shadow of the railings falls on his face, giving an illusion of being trapped. He goes away and the film ends with the shadows as if telling us that we may think we are free, but it is an illusion and we are still trapped in something or the other. 
Dialogue of the Day:
"When the abyss looks at you funny, punch the abyss in the face."