The everyday politics of sex
Aadish Keluskar’s ‘Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil’ is poised to be one of the most exciting Indian premieres at this year’s Mumbai Film Festival
In his second feature film Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil, Aadish Keluskar creates a male prototype, which, he says is an amalgam of the many misogynistic, misanthropic men he has encountered. Nothing, he believes, can bring hope to this world—certainly not love, which, he repeatedly tells his distressed girlfriend, has an expiry date. He tapes routine sex with his girlfriend and challenges her not to trust him to delete it. An angry woman arouses him. The kaali-peeli (Mumbai taxi) is where he likes to sexually please his girlfriend; in the confines of a room, his pleasure is urgent and militant. Does he have any redemptive qualities, he questions himself towards the end of the film. The viewer has a morally clear but disturbing answer.
Rohit Kokate, an actor from Osmanabad who also played the lead role in Keluskar’s first Kafkaesque existential thriller in Marathi, Kaul—A Calling, carries off this role with the right combination of brazenness and self-pity integral to the kind of machismo that goes in pop lexicon and social commentary now as “toxic masculinity"—all too familiar in Indian news and social media at the moment, and as old as the Pandavas and Kauravas.
Jaoon Kahan... selected for the India Gold section of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2018 (on till 1 November), is an intimate story in close-ups and tight close-ups. It begins with a long walk along Mumbai’s Marine Drive under bright skies. It moves progressively inward into a claustro-nightmare—a brown-walled Irani café, an empty, old-world movie theatre, a dingy hotel room and finally a woman’s hostel room. Routine male violence, the violation of consent, power dynamics in the act of sex, a woman’s physical helplessness when faced with male brutality even when she believes she can control a man’s choices and emotions—Keluskar gives us an overwhelmingly intimate portrait of sexual politics and violence.
Actor Khushboo Upadhyay plays Sakina in this two-character film with remarkable attention to detail, like how Sakina looks, how her body moves, and what she wears. None of it is flattering. She loves Hindi film songs from the 1960s and 1970s, and some of her moments in the film have these songs as a background music, rudely interrupted by a banal sight or sound from the setting. You will probably never see Eena Meena Deeka pictured as psychotherapy another time. Upadhyay, who grew up in Pune and Mumbai, says, “The end of the film drew me to the role. The script doesn’t hide in the bushes. It’s specific, right there. I loved the whole attitude of the film."
She picked up clues to the role’s physicality from the script and also the man’s dialogue, his perception of how her Sakina looks. Sakina is older than him, and works as a clerk, which requires her to keep sitting for long hours in one place. “I gained weight around my waist. We used make-up to get stains on my teeth. Making the skin dark was crucial, it is made to make (Sakina) feel less beautiful compared to others because that’s how dark women feel in India," says Upadhyay.
“I related to the character’s belief in what she wants, and her decision at the end. But once a woman is out of her home she has the same experience as the other. You are as vulnerable as any woman, So she and I are the same at that level," she says.
Upadhyay has earlier done small roles in CityLights (2014) and Trapped (2016), and the lead role of a woman negotiating her love life and private freedom in Mumbai’s public spaces in Hardik Mehta’s short film, The Affair (2017).
We don’t know much about her character in Jaoon Kahan... except that she is a schoolteacher, lives in women’s hostel, has a mother whom she visits often outside the city, and a girlfriend with relationship problems. We don’t see the lives of either of these two characters, beyond this one evening when they are together in the city, talking, arguing and resenting each other. Unlike the man, the woman displays slivers of belief in the transformative power of love, commitment and compassion.
Keluskar says the idea of the film came to him in an outburst. “Violence is all round us, all the time. After the first draft of the story, I wanted to bring in politics, gender and frustrations from lack of economic power all together through lens of routine violence in our lives." The specifics of language and dialogue developed later.
Without much attention to cinematic craft, and a small budget, Jaoon Kahan... is a film as suited to the big screen as to a smartphone. The 31-year-old director from Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district, Kankavli, grew up in Ratnagiri and Mumbai. His father, an employee of All India Radio, is a poet and political satirist and his mother a schoolteacher. His earliest influences are his father’s work and books from around the world. “Our family moved around a lot within Mumbai. We have stayed in government societies and chawls. I was free to meet and know everyone who lived around us. That’s where the character traits of the man and woman come from. I grew up in a family with Nehruvian values. But later I realized those values don’t exist and don’t work, I think both my films are driven by that contradiction," he says.
He asked his actors to memorize and not improvise on the dialogue because although he went for a free-style, home-video kind of a visual grammar for this film, he wanted a specific beat to the language and packed the dialogue with thought—in the absence of other characters, the script and the performances had to be the art. The viewer waits for the end knowing what goes on inside the character’s heads, what exactly they want from each other, and how astonishing the end could get.
The Mumbaiyya Hindi used in the film, “gutter poetry", in the writer-director’s own words, has some transcendent sequences—it is an effective vehicle for sly couching of violence, sentimentality and hopelessness.
Jaoon Kahan Bata Ae Dil premieres on 28 October. For screening details, visit Mumbaifilmfestival.com.