Kannada director-actor Upendra's A is a disjointed film full of bold choices, creative execution and merging serious points with more masala elements. It's a story about a director, and an actress he makes a star out of, and it's a story about love - however, to call it a love story would give you a rather weird idea of love throughout most of the movie. A bit of the underbelly of the film industry is exposed, but it's not an exposé.
It's almost impossible to clearly define what A truly is; all I really know is, I can't really discuss it properly without spoiling it. It did confirm something for me: Upendra seems to be a film maker whose choices I do not agree with quite often, but I still appreciate what he's doing, if not how he's doing it. A lot of these niggles have to do with how he treats his female characters, but I'll explain my thinking further in the spoileriffic part of this write-up.
So either rush to watch it, or stop reading this.
From here on there will be SPOILERS. Including the very end of the film.
I'll start with what I loved about the film, which is plenty. The choice to begin with the heavily censored Surya -directed feature introduces us to the character and his unique view of the world. It's harsh, it's jarring, it's confusing; you're not sure what to think. Even back in the actual reality, there are things that shock you - really, our hero is a drunkard who plays Russian Roulette in front of a young child? What the hell is going on?
But the slow reveal makes it all worth it. We see the result but not the cause; so to find out the cause is suddenly all the more delicious. I hungered for back story, and when I got some, I was pleased.
Both leads are superb actors and effective in the roles. I was stunned to see Upendra act as well as he did, given that this was his first performance. The role had its over-the-top moments, but he excelled at the more subtle moments as well - just witness the scene where Surya realises he's in love with Chandini. Powerful stuff.
Chandni, on the other hand, shows wonderful range for another debut performance. She's starry-eyed and steel-cold and everything in between, just as the role demands. In the "love circle" scene in the cliff, she's not just a woman in love, she's absolute steadfast, and there's a strength in her that comes through.
The songs were also wonderful, and woven into the narrative so tightly you wouldn't want to skip most of them as to not miss crucial plot elements. Particularly towards the end of the film, they really become a part of the film's narrative, as opposed to just being love songs.
There's another layer to the film that I also really appreciate - perhaps it's just the disjointed in which Upendra chooses to tell his story, but I ended up really mulling over the message of the film. It just seems like while on the story level there isn't all that much going on, beneath the surface there's a lot of things being given to the audience to assemble into a message. We're asked to confront topics of casting coach, film finances, corrupt politicians, film censorship and that's not even digging into what the ranting night scene says about how Indians fail to live up to the greatness of their nation, according to Surya's own thinking. Tradition is great, culture is great - it's the people who are not.
This all makes for an incredibly thought-provoking film. Sometimes the beauty of vagueness is the intepretation: you can pour your own ideas into the thought-provoking void left by the film maker and so, as I sit here wondering what Chandini's last monologue was all about ("this is a film about reality"), I can put together an interpretation that makes sense to me but was not necessarily what Upendra intended to be drawn from his film.
That's the nature of this dialogue that happens between a film and its audience: sometimes, messages in films will change lives, other times, things will be misunderstood.
Upendra himself claims that the violence towards women in A has been misunderstood, and I know some of the fans who commented on my post about his latest direction, Super, put forth the idea that he is only reflecting how women are treated in Indian society. I'm not going to lie: the casual way in which violence towards women was portrayed in A did bother me, and I do rather fail to see the point of it. To me, there would be two ways in which this violence could be more understandable as a choice (in the end, every director has choices when it comes to these things, because as realistic as films may be, they are still products of fiction, and fiction includes choices, even if it tries to mimic reality).
First, it might be that the villains are violent towards women, but the hero is not, in which case the message is: violence towards women is the thing that only evil, despicable people do (which would be correct, in my opinion).
The other choice would be to critique the violence from within. Even if the hero does it, then the question becomes: why? The explanation is the ideology of patriarchy, and that women are treated as lesser beings or as possessions, and thus they are treated horribly.
Upendra doesn't really go for either of these two approaches, which is why the brutality of the casual violence becomes so indefensible. Like I said in my review of Super: this is a man who thinks through his ideas before he presents them, so it is disappointing to see how little thought he has put into the fact that his hero mistreats his heroine throughout most stages of their relationship. He doesn't have to hit her on the set; just yelling at her for falling in love with him would have established the same points. He doesn't have to drag her and throw her on the ground when going through the "love tests" he angrily puts her through. It's this bizarre, exaggerated, unnecessary violence that just really grates me.
If there would be a larger whole into which this violence could slot into, I could forgive it, but there isn't. It just is - a conscious choice that was perhaps meant to demonstrate the hero's anger more than the heroine's lowly lot in life (despite all her riches, she's still a woman, she's still weaker, she's still a victim in many regards), but staying there so unquestioned it becomes a problem. Because let's be clear about this - there isn't a moment where Surya's character is called out for his violence towards women, and while the character is far from flawless, he is still a hero. He still emerges victorious towards the end, and the heroine's sacrifice is still on his behalf.
The other female characters aren't exactly stereotype-breaking, either. The foreign madam is okay until she becomes the Whorey Gori, the sexually promiscuous foreigner who genuinely confuses sex for love. Newsflash, Upendra: white women aren't all sexually promiscuous, and the reason divorce rates are higher is not that marriages are unhappy, but that divorces are more accepted.
Perhaps my biggest annoyance is how it ruins what could have been a definite film favourite, but now just ends up being a really interesting film I'll probably rewatch just to see the more successful choices the film maker made here.
I'll repeat it, just so nobody misunderstands: I appreciate Upendra's films for their bold narrative choices and messages, and they remain some of the most thought-provoking Indian films I've ever seen. However, I could do without the misogyny, however unintended. I don't need an idealised world in my films; I also don't need mistreatment of women that doesn't serve a greater purpose in the story. Most of my favourite Indian film makers don't necessarily present a progressive picture when it comes to gender, but I guess my continued problem with Upendra is how far his treatment of female characters often goes the other direction.
Still, I'll keep watching..