Despite the many overt comments about politics, the differences in bodies and an unabashed gaze at a specific Indian male type, the film decidedly takes audiences through a journey of the lowest of the lowest rank of social strata. Now here I choose to take back my words, because as soon as I typed “lowest rank” out, I immediately exposed the linear way of looking at things (the way life and social class is ranked, and class is so problematic as we all know). Here the approach to people that our country has so imbued into its people, is turned on its head. Things don’t work in a linear fashion anymore, first, second, last, bottom, top, middle. Here, there is only urban decay, and nature. There is only the forest versus the crowded, empty corners and holes that urban development has given way to.
It is definitely the grittier side of things, in fact my neighbourhood is proudly featured in many scenes in the film, only because it is so infamous. How did Upper Boon Keng, with all its gangsters, loansharks, single-parent families, one-room-one-hall, foreign worker dormitories, caskets and ailing lion dance terrace slash gangster hideouts make it into a film that, well, set foot onto a stage like Cannes? It is clear here, that Rajagopal’s eyes are set on the flipside of things. It is no surprise, that underground tunnels, dirty flats, and unashamed corners have made itself home for the protagonist, Siva. Siva seems to live like vermin, basal, visceral and largely problematic, he is the unapologetic misogynist, suddenly finding himself silenced amongst very strong, composed female characters.
His wife, mother, ex-fuck-buddy, current-fuck-body all have that in common. They can’t give two fucks to listen to him, because their lives are so embroiled in situational and circumstantial problems, so rooted in a systemic oppression of bodies and race, they simply do not have the fucking time to listen to him get mad at not having his way. He wants his daughter, that is clear from the beginning, and nobody cares. All the women in the story are sort of well-rounded (much to be done, but for the purposes of contrast, their narrative arcs seem to do for now) and are strong, seemingly strong la, and have carved out a nook for themselves in their current lives, WITHOUT this man. This man character, reminded me so much of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground” and Beckett’s “Molloy”, which Rajagopal pointed out during his Q&A. For this ekphrasis, the film did encapsulate many surreal moments, which in turn somehow gave more legitimacy to these forgotten and dirty nooks and corners, only because they were an unwelcome sight on such a big screen. It didn’t seem to fit the congruous images of Singapore: shiny, clean, new and forthcoming. Here, the eyes of Siva are unbending to light, and more accustomed to hiding in shadows, darkness, and peeping at the lives of the women around him through windows, gate grills, window grills, window panes, tent openings, office doors, etc.
My favourite moment was a shot of the highway with a man on a recreational sports bike, cycling very fast in fancy sports gear. In contrast, Siva was cycling in the opposite direction in his stinky t-shirt (that t-shirt should be immortalised and framed for not tearing or withering from dirt throughout the filming process) on a stolen motorised bike that had run out of battery, so he was cycling on it sweating in the morning (or was it sunset) light.
Also, brilliant montage, framing devices were employed throughout to delineate Siva’s character, often separating him from the different people in his life. It was as if this man was never meant to survive or thrive in this world. He was from another world, the “forest” world where there were no rules, and things didn’t work the way it did in our society, where people regressed to animals and succumbed to their basal needs. He was comfortable there, as seen from his various attempts to go back. His brief fuck with Miss China doll was also in the comforts and homage of these makeshift tarpaulin tents that were so surreal. The last scene was up for debate in my head, did it really happen? Did he really fucking run away with his ailing daughter without anyone noticing? Did he just imagine doing that, did he just wish he could do that so badly, he willed it to the cinema’s screen…. But hey, whatever it is, this film messed me up for sure.
Poverty is real. Homelessness is real. Fucked up boys like Siva, so lost and so bewildered in this city full of unforgiving civil righteousness, is real. Girls like that stupid office clerk, who for a second, thought she stood a chance with this weirdo, are real. Women who convert to Islam are real. Mothers who get cheated by their sons, repeatedly are real. Women who come here to support their families, but get embroiled in abusive, sexual work that deprives them of dignity and in conditions that are unspeakable, are real. We didn’t need a movie to tell us this, or did we?