By Nabanita Sengupta
Blind adherence to tradition is bad. Culture is a human construct that binds us to a certain lifestyle. But what happens when we free ourselves from all these human made shackles? Do we reach a utopian existence of perfection or do we end up losing the very core of our being? Actor-turned director Anindya Banerjee’s debut movie ‘Smug’ explores such a tradition-free, culture-less world and its impact on a bunch of six young men and women. The film opens with a conversation between a girl and her teacher walking along blind alleys when the teacher decides to tell a story. That story takes us to a place where six carefree youngsters have lost their memory and forgotten their tradition. The film explores the predicament of those individuals as they battle with their losses. Ultimately the six of them vanish as without memory, without tradition, no one can survive. Presented by Foul-mouth Films, the hour and ten minutes long film has been produced by Anoushka Film and Entertainment. The film was premiered in Kolkata Film Festival 2017 and it has travelled extensively to other countries. It has not been mass released but has already drawn interest of the academia.
It would be an understatement to say that the film is experimental; in fact, in a span of almost an hour, Anindya Banerjee dispels completely the accepted and established parameters of the genre of film making and creates a new benchmark for Indian cinema. He has not only dabbled in abstract, but has made abstract the very basis of his art and antilogic the spine of his directorial debut. If all art is a product of historicity and contemporariness, then ‘Smug’ definitely fits the definition. The uncertainty and restlessness of the present time, the gradual dissociation of the self from its roots gets reflected in this film not only through the irrational behaviour of the characters but also by the use of camera angles and sequence of shots which deliberately break away from the conventional grammar of film making.
‘Smug’ questions the loss of tradition in an Eliotesque manner, by stretching the purview of Eliot’s ‘historical sense’ beyond the realm of just poets and artists to encompass every individual. The ‘pastness of past and also its present’ which forms the backbone of tradition and culture becomes an irreplaceable quality for human race to continue to exist. True to its claim as an ‘antilogic’ movie, ‘Smug’ takes us to a world devoid of tradition, logic and rationality where only the instinct survives. Our chaperon to that world is a little girl and her teacher engaged in a sort of Socratic dialogue trying to find the truth of this existence, this life. The innocence of the little child is aptly foiled by the experience of the elder one – while the child self-avowedly lives in heaven, the elder woman proclaims to live in sin. In the course of their rambling through the blind alleys of life representing our limited worldview, they meet an old man. The man’s eyes spark with life on seeing the child as he quickly wraps her scarf around his own neck and concentrates upon drawing a charcoal portrait. The man draws while the child happily poses for him, occasionally trying to catch the teacher’s attention – the innocence and experience get captured in a single frame.
Anindya Banerjee breaks away from the traditional cinema as he creates his movie without a conventionally accepted storyline. The entire film rises out of a single situation, a dystopic existence of humankind in a world sans tradition. The happy and carefree youngsters who enter a house to have a good time together suddenly lose their memories. Along with their memories, they lose their identities and each can be recognised only by a particular trait or signifier. Once that bunch of youngsters enters the doomed space, their easy chatter is replaced by broken sentences, stilted conversations and meaningless stringing of words into futile dialogues. The signifiers lose their association with the signified resulting in a complete disruption of any meaningful exchange. The film here cleverly makes use of props like umbrella, lipstick, book, an old photograph to bring out the rudderless animalistic instinct inherent in each of us. Stripped of all cultural baggage and therefore also of all the conventional inhibitions the characters suddenly find themselves in a vacuum, not knowing how to talk or even how to act. Lovemaking becomes nothing more than a display of violent sexual activities aptly symbolised by a charred lotus. One of the characters burns a book in glee while another uses lipstick to draw crisscross lines on face as they forget its actual use. Their sub-human behaviour shocks the audience, jolts them out of their intellectual stupor, forcing them to ask existentialist questions regarding what is considered as accepted behaviour and the layers of cultural heritage underneath them. ‘Smug’ peels off those layers of consciousness one by one till what remains is just the being with instinct. Like the soul in limbo, the characters are clueless as well – even unaware of their fate. Minus their culture and tradition, they can only await their end – as a mysterious voice that suddenly appears from nowhere and calls himself ‘Tradition’, warns them of their doom. The powerful and disembodied voice scares them, suffocates them till, begging mercy, the characters simply cease to exist at one time. The voice becomes the voice against fascism, against dissociation from roots and against a judgemental approach towards life. Therefore, even after the characters start fading away, the voice remains. The only one to emerge unscathed from the entire episode is the little girl, the bystander to witness this story unfold.
The film makes beautiful use of song and music to heighten the effect, particularly the song ‘O Lotus’ with unusual images associated with it becomes a metaphor of that subverted reality. The movement within the movie is chaotic, as the characters are no more left with intentions or purposes. But even that chaotic movement is temporarily put on hold by four excerpts of speeches on world peace by great personalities like Tagore and Oppenheimer. Time itself is disrupted, as without desire, without tradition nothing holds any meaning. In ignorance the self ceases to exist and what remains is only a shell of the human body. ‘Smug’ represents that existence and its pitfalls. In today’s world of materialistic existence this movie points at the dangers of dissociating oneself from one’s roots, culture and tradition. In a dark, scary world of collective amnesia stretched to its extreme, the only ray of hope is in form of the little girl who personifies a new beginning. ‘Smug’ raises questions, forces us to think but leaves each of us to find our own answers and undertake our own journeys.
Nabanita Sengupta, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in English in Sarsuna College, under the University of Calcutta. She is a creative writer, translator and an academician. Her stories have been longlisted and shortlisted for Wordweavers short story contests, and her creative writings published in reputed e-zines like Muse India, Cafe Dissensus and Coldnoon. She has recently guest edited an issue of Cafe Dissensus on Women and Displacement. She has also attended various national and international conferences in India and abroad.