In a week dominated by Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, it’s almost subversive to pop into a theatre with three other people to watch a film called Shorts. It takes gumption for Anurag Kashyap to release such a film in such a week, but then, commercially releasing a series of indie short films in India in any week requires courage, and a commitment to a culture of better cinema. A commitment that Kashyap has demonstrated repeatedly: it was little over seven months ago that a similar project, a collaborative film involving 12 directors, opened to near-empty theatres.
The short film, that building block of intellectual cinema, has great potential to be a feeder system for the great resurgence of Parallel Cinema we’re told is right around the corner. As a travelling circus for new talent, it is a cost-effective model that really deserves more commercial support in order to break out of the festival circuit. Of course, Sturgeon’s Law applies; the constraints of time mean that most filmmakers struggle to both make a coherent point and tell a coherent story. It is a challenge the directors of the five films in Shorts struggle with. While two films — Shlok Sharma’s Sujata and Neeraj Ghaywan’s Shor, though Anirban Roy’s Audacity comes close — not only rise to it but tell compelling stories, the other two overreach and fail to connect. With attention spans (this reviewer’s included) where they are, it is very easy to lose your audience if your short doesn’t strike an immediate chord; it can make 20 minutes seem like 40.
The five directors in Shorts come from different backgrounds, but in their sensibilities, belong to the Kult of Kashyap (three of them — Sharma, Pandey and Ghaywan — have served as assistant directors in his films). Sujata, for instance, despite scriptwriter Annie Zaidi’s best efforts at foreshadowing, never leaves the audience prepared for the violence of its conclusion, the creativity of which has shades of Kashyap (and therefore Tarantino). Siddhartha Gupt’s The Epilogue uses many of the paranoia-inducing tight close-ups from That Girl With Yellow Boots. Pandey’s Nawazuddin-starring Mehfuz has Kashyap’s fetishisation of the weird. Of course, that is not to say that the films are derivative; they are, on the contrary, refreshingly original works that show the variety that exists even in this corner of the indie circuit. The only thing they seem to have in common is that no producer worth his Armani cufflinks would let ideas like them anywhere close to his money.
If anything, the films are connected by a thread of women asserting themselves through whatever means at their disposal (except Mehfuz, where the plot predictably revolves around Nawazuddin). While Huma Qureshi in Sujata resorts to violence to rid her of her torturer, Richa Chadda in The Epilogue uses persistence, albeit as seen from a male perspective, as all five offerings are (though the perspective differs). In Audacity, a cheeky yet dark comedy that could have been the highlight if it had been a little more creative in its execution, Preeti Singh plays a powerless teenager standing up to her abusive father. Ratnabali Bhattacharjee in Shor, on the other hand, uses the confidence gained from being the family’s breadwinner to hold her own in her marriage. It is these performances that play a large part in the films’ quality, and it is no accident that it is Qureshi and Bhattacharjee who steal the show.
It is no accident either, given the talent that we know exists on the fringes of mainstream cinema, that Shorts, for all its trappings of an extended audition, does have moments of sheer brilliance, which make it worth almost every penny.