Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Road to Redemption: Gaali Beeja of Babu Eswar Prasad

(artist-film director Babu Eswar Prasad)

Road movie is a genre of films in which the roads play a very important role, either as a metaphor or as an active agent. The people who set out for the journey in their motorbikes or cars never reach their destination or come back home as the same people. People get transformed by the road where the strangers become gods and strangeness becomes natural. Road movies are also called coming of age movies for the touch of roads at times is visceral, sensual as well as intellectual. Chance meetings change the travellers; sexual encounters in cars, open lands or in seedy hotels, accidental meetings with revolutionaries, desperados and so on change the perspective of life itself. Roads change people and they change absolutely, and that’s why most of the people do not dare to travel. The growth of motor industry in the post-Second World War had facilitated the origin of road movies and road novels. The latest in the road novel genres was Orhan Pamuk’s ‘New Life’. And there would not be a single youth in this world who has not heard of Che’s ‘Motorcycle Diary’.

Babu Eswar Prasad, one of the Indian contemporary artists, has always wanted to make a movie and when he finally decided to make one he chose the genre of road movies. His debut film ‘Gaali Beeja’ (Wind Seed), however has turned out to be a quasi-road movie in which the characters meet by chance and leave without making any substantial transformations in their personalities. Thinking of this part of transformation, at times one could also see the ordinariness of lives lived by billions of people all over the world and millions of them on the road for one or the other reason. They go back home as they have come out. Road just does not affect them. Babu’s film oscillates between the wonderful alchemy that happens to personalities on the roads and the Beckettian absurdity of changelessness, where ‘nobody, nobody goes and nothing happens.’ This awfulness is often taken for granted till one is thrown out of his/her own devices and becomes a subject of external forces which lay out of his control.

 (A still from Gaali Beeja)

The protagonist in Babu’s ‘Gaali Beeja’ is a road engineer. As a part of his work he drives between Bangalore and Mumbai, two economic hubs of India, helping the state to acquire new (agriculture) lands, rendering farmers helpless and paving way for the development to take out its grand procession. But this road engineer does not seem to be aware of the outcome of his road design strategies; even if he is aware certain kind of coldness has come into his being. The travels between the cities turn this young man into a machine driving another machine, almost unaffected by what he sees along the road. He has risked his comforts and even his romantic life to keep the absurdity and awfulness of his dreary job on. But it cannot be always so. A chance meeting with Jaffar, an erstwhile pirated DVD seller who hitches a ride, after knowing that he travels always between the cities, gives him a set of DVDs of the widely acclaimed road movies that include Alice in the Cities by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders.

The strange similarity between the life of the road engineer, mostly spent on road and motels, and that of Alice and the narrator in Wim Wenders movie, however does not change the protagonist in Babu’s movie fundamentally. He is a passive viewer but the films have touched him somewhere that’s why at some point when he takes the pictures of the roads, suddenly he becomes sensitive towards the termite dunes (which are a sort sand castles, firm, deep and full of activities) and happens to compare it with a high rise housing complex coming up in a nowhere land with the hope that the real estate cost would go up once the highway is laid in the near future to which our road engineer also contributes his bit. Also, he happens to see a picture card of Hieronymous Bosch painting and to this fantasy world of strange being, he cuts and paste a road during his leisure moments in a hotel, to his own amusement. This cruel joke or even a self-critique is quite poignant as we see a couple of other characters who cross the paths with the engineer, but for their own reasons.

 (Amrish Bijjal in Gaali Beeja)

A farmer who waits for something to happen or someone to come from somewhere is a strong metaphor or rather a poignant symbol of the human beings all over the world waiting for their savior to manifest. In the apparent narrative of the film, as Babu puts, the road that leads from one city to the other gets ‘distracted’ by the side roads and the side story. The waiting farmer is such a side story but gets more focus than the main story because of the enigmatic presence who almost witnesses things changing around him. From his attire we understand he is a farmer who has lost a ‘life, family and land’ at the altar of development. But he does not join the protestors who try to stop the surveyors. He just goes to the bus stop and waits. This waiting symbol is at once the emblematic waiting of the human beings for their savior, and also of them who have lost the agency of change or resistance due to the ideological interventions of politics, culture and economics in their lives. As they have already forgotten what they are waiting for, the very waiting becomes an absurdity. Nobody comes, Nobody goes and Nothing happens. The road Engineer and the farmer become brothers in arms at least when we realize their plight.

The third character, the man who sticks bills/film posters on the village walls and bus stops, despite his age and agility is an ancient machine/a rusting cycle or a captive of it. Like the engineer he too moves from one end of the village to the other sticking posters. He is connected to the world of cinema because he sticks the posters. But he seems to be absolutely disinterested in films itself. His search is for a black dog which had bitten him a few days before and is more worried about the dog than his own fear for getting rabies. He too comes across the engineer and at a point he even gives a race to the engineer and leaving it in between without feeling depression or elation. He could eke out some laughter from the audience but his pathos that evokes a smile is what links him with the engineer; they too are doing the same absurd thing, going between places and pasting up dreams.

 (Rizawan as the farmer in Gaali Beeja)

Gaali Beeja in Kannada means ‘Wind Seed’, a seed that flies around with/in the winds. The seeds that fly off take roots in far off places provided they find the right climes. At the same, the seeds that fly off connote the generations that break away from the roots and families; this is a sort of anchorless state of being. But what about those wind seeds that find no landing place at all? Babu is concerned about such people. This he expresses through a mad young man who wanders at the periphery of the village and along the highway. He is also in the move but reaches nowhere, perhaps comes back to the same place again and again. Babu shows him appearing in the film for the first time in a shot cleverly placed behind a burnt and rusting body of a bus abandoned. The degeneration of the purpose and the body that could have fulfilled the purpose (of journey) is now broken down. The rusting of life and also the life’s ultimate struggle to climb up even along the rusting bodies have been an interesting subject for Babu and he had expressed it in his major video work titled ‘Vortex’ (2008). The road engineer perhaps does not have a rusting body but rush seems to be getting into his mind as he has fallen victim to the routine. Road has not changed him perhaps road will never change him. But somewhere he is touched by the films, in which Babu believes as a director. Babu makes his engineer character to pass the DVDs on to a freedom loving woman traveller who gives him a lift on her Enfield Motorbike.

Though Babu would accept that Gaali Beeja started off as a road movie, it definitely did not end as one. In the course of making the movie, what changed was not only the story but also the very idea of making it as a road movie. But in the final analysis, it has to be a road movie because though the parameters that define a road movie are not met to the dot in this movie, finally the transformation of the film as well as the director itself is caused by the road and the experiences given by it. In that sense it is a complete road movie. What I liked at the outset itself was the irking length of the city views in Bangalore (mostly constructions) that Babu captures in due course of establishing the movie (which a Bollywood or Kannada director would have shown by two or three cuts of the Vidhan Soudh and the IT Hubs with glass facades) which slowly becomes a dreary trap from which the engineer tries to escape and ironically helps in making the same trap elsewhere through laying out of new roads. His journey between Bangalore and Mumbai becomes liberating only in the sense that while on road he is not in the two domain traps namely Bangalore and Mumbai.

 (from Babu Eswar Prasad's video Vortex)

Babu Eswar Prasad’s movie is a tribute to many film makers. As an avid film watcher, Babu has almost 5000 film titles in his own archives and he has been adding to it by befriending those young school drop outs who sold pirated DVDs of international movies. Jaffar who hops into the engineer’s car is a living character and interestingly in every big city one would find one or two such Jaffers. With the arrival of speed downloading and special movie sites, the piracy sector is a dying one. Like Gaali Beeja, now what they could do is to spread the DVDs in the fertile minds. Babu’s film has got the problem of a man who knows too many things about films (including road movies) but does not have the technical know how of making one. The learning process seems to be good. And the confusion that he faced at the censor board that kept wondering whether it was a feature film or a documentary or none of the above, stems from the off-traditional narrative style. He does not tie the loose ends of the film; there is no solution by bringing the three characters together at some point (in the Anurag Kashyap format) and leave the viewers satisfied. The actors have to be appreciated for the commendable job that they have done as Mohammed Rizvan and Amrish Bijjal, two fellow artists who have also acted in the art house movies done by other friends in Bangalore. While watching the movie I kept wondering why Babu chose a conventionally handsome man (who could be mistaken for a film star in real life) to play the lead role of the road engineer. 

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