6 January 2015

Who's that on the phone?

Director Anurag Kashyap's thought-provoking new thriller, Ugly, paints a chilling picture of the world we live in, and technology is the throbbing, ticking time-bomb at its heart.

The prize scene in Anurag Kashyap's Ugly -- the scene people were still discussing as they walked out of the theatre, despite all the harrowing things that came after -- is a conversation about mobile phones. A posse of Mumbai policemen are grilling two men because a third man (whom they were chasing on foot) came in front of a car and died. The first man explains that they were looking for a little girl who had disappeared from a parked car. The other man says, "I went in the other direction, and I was asking this guy if he'd seen her when his phone began to ring, and my friend's face started flashing on the screen, with the words 'Papa calling'..." 

"'Papa calling!'" the inspector interjects scornfully. How is it possible for a phone to show a picture of the caller, he wants to know. He is disbelieving and caustic, and when the harried men try to humour him by explaining as painstakingly and clearly as possible, he is insulted. Do they think he doesn't know that mobile phones have cameras, huh? 

Girish Kulkarni's watchful, fine-grained performance as the cop who switches constantly between performing high status and low, between kowtowing to his boss and rubbing his suspects' noses in the dust, will hopefully establish the actor -- the pivot of such superb, distinctive Marathi films as 
Deool and Masala -- in Hindi cinema, too. 

Director Anurag Kashyap gets Kulkarni to play the scene for laughs. But it's the kind of nervous giggle that emerges when you're holding your body taut on the edge of your seat: we know we can't afford to laugh at a cop, no matter how technologically illiterate he may seem. Meanwhile, the repeated phrase 'Papa calling' achieves a kind of talismanic power: you can see how it might seem ridiculous to Kulkarni's sort of cop, imbued with the luxuries of class privilege in terms of both technology and language, and yet, in the context of a kidnapping, it has a desperate urgency. 

What Kashyap does with the smart phone here is nothing short of masterful: he makes technology the focus not just of this scene, but of the film as a whole. If there is a recurring motif in 
Ugly, it is the phone call. 

Kabeer Kaushik's under-watched 
Sehar, released a decade ago in 2005, was perhaps the first Hindi crime drama to place the mobile phone squarely at its centre. Kaushik's tightly-scripted tale of the Lucknow police's effort to hit out at organised crime was set in the mid-90s, and actually narrated in the voice of the cellular expert they hired to help them conquer the newly-arrived technology that the gangs they were tracking had already acquired. The cell phone expert in mid-90s Lucknow was a mild-mannered college professor with a salt and pepper beard, played memorably as always by Pankaj Kapur. 

Ten years down the line, Tiwariji has been replaced -- the technology expert is now in-house, and a young woman rather than an older man. Policewoman Upadhyay wears the corporate-professional uniform of collared pinstripe shirt tucked into trousers, her hair in a neat bun and her eyes behind black-rimmed spectacles. (This shift of gender is particularly interesting, given that in 
Sehar, Tiwariji's aversion to the guns that surrounded him when he started working with the police was incorporated into the film's dominant narrative about masculinity). 

But the technology itself has changed much more than the figure of the expert. Ugly's world is the thoroughly wired one we now live in: a tangled web of I-phones, phone-tapping, recording devices, cyber cafes, credit card numbers and internet-based calling devices. 
Unlike in Sehar, where the technology was an artefact for narrative and historical use, in Ugly it is both that and something more profound. It is a marker of class. It is a part of one's identity. And yet it is also an enabler of anonymity. Everyone can be traced to his or her device, but not every transaction can be traced to a person. 
The cell phone, that appears so frequently now in the discourse of safety as an invincibility shield, is so quickly separated from the kidnapped child that you have to wonder how we believe it to be some sort of prosthetic limb. A man can call his friend from the ether of the internet, and use a recorded voice to be someone else. Husbands can track their wives' phone calls. A brother can blackmail his sister, so long as he can disguise his voice. 

We think we use these devices to speak to each other, Kashyap seems to suggest, and yet these devices stand between us as much as they bring us together. It is a powerfully unsettling thought.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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