Gulaal: The Inner Gulag

18 Mar


After the delightfully subversive Dev D, director Anurag Kashyap’s second effort this year is Gulaal. I wish I could write about it in non-spoileriffic detail but that’s not going to happen today, so feel free to scroll down to the last line of this post is all you want is a snapshot. Otherwise, here goes:

Set in a fictional small town in Rajasthan, Gulaal is ostensibly a movie about a colorless young man who is thrown willy nilly into a whirlpool of politics, power and sex that he can barely begin to recognize, much less understand. But his story is merely the framework that holds together a larger tale of the many shades of personal loss, youth and tradition, modern India and its schizophrenic love affair with the past, all set in a land where every happy ending is tainted, every love story is a betrayal and success comes dripping blood.

The action starts with a bespectacled young law student (which is apparently the local slang for “loser who can’t land a job”) Dileep Singh (Raja Chaudhary) who ends up sharing living quarters with a mystery firebrand everybody calls Rannsa (Abhimanyu Singh) when his efforts to get into the college’s hostel only gets him humiliated, stripped, trussed up like a chicken and thrown into a handy bathroom for the night as part of the customary hazing.

Rannsa, a real live prince whose given name is Rananjay Singh, commands Dileep to be more of a man and less of a mouse and sets off with him to settle the score… by the time that ends in a second stint in the hostel bathroom, the two men are friends the same way a man and his dog are best friends. Towed along in Rannsa’s wake, Dileep soon finds himself enmeshed in the kind of life he knows nothing about – with royalty that longs for the days of fiefdom and denounces Indian democracy as a betrayal of the principles that it held dear through the ages and in the face of tremendous odds, the petty feuds of violence marred college politics, and fascinatingly mysterious women who are never what he expects.

In spite of his constant whining that he is a simple student who doesn’t want to get embroiled in whatever evil broth the others are cooking, Dileep gets drawn deeper and deeper into this world that he is expected to understand simply because he is a Rajput and a friend of Rannsa’s. “Are you a Rajput?” he is asked in accusatory tones every time he tries to think for himself. But as the movie shows us repeatedly, he really has no idea what they’re asking of him (Dileep’s stump speech, for example, is a classic for the ages: “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” he bleats pathetically, not to mention the laugh out loud exchange between him and Karan at his victory party).

All of which only heightens your enjoyment of the five Rajputs at the center of this story: each of them have a role to play in the power struggle that informs all the action in this movie, each of them towers head and shoulders above poor hapless Dileep-without-a-clue, and each of them is even more powerless in their own way than he is.

The first of them, Rannsa, on a better day, would have been the hero – he’s a real live prince, the heir to a fortune and a legacy that automatically gives him rights in this land that others have to work to achieve. For a man on top of the food chain, however, Rannsa’s options are severely limited because his secret is that he hates every moment of his life and would give it all up in a heartbeat but can’t so long as his father is alive thanks to his own obscure set of principles.

He doesn’t believe in the cause (any cause) and he has no hopes for the revolution; the only reason he even bothers to get involved with the college elections is a fit of devilry. He becomes the sacrifice demanded by his brother’s ambition.

Said brother is Karan (Aditya Shrivastava), the unacknowledged bastard of Rannsa’s His Royal Highness dad, a mustachioed old world rotter who is as quick with the cash as he is stingy with the longed-for public acknowledgment. Karan’s entire life revolves around getting into the charmed circle that Rannsa so casually disdains, forever barred to him because his father refuses to accept anything other than financial responsibility for his illegitimate children.

Karan is a figure straight out of Shakespeare, a still and largely silent man who patiently lays out his intricate web of intrigue with the delicacy of a spider, never forgetting, never hesitating, never letting go. He’s a man you know will always accomplish his goals, but the one person he truly needed to witness his success will never see it.

The other half of Karan’s coin is his sister Kiran (Ayesha Mohan). Kiran’s more voluble about her emotional needs than her brother but she is just as quick to channel her feelings into her brother’s political ambitions when it becomes clear for once and for all that she is never going to get the father she always wanted. Dileep likes to see her as the princess who needs rescuing from the dragon but that’s because he’s only ever seen the pretty girl who lets him make love to her. In truth, she is the product of a land where women come last on the totem pole and she knows the value of her body as a woman, as well as the value of a human body in general – it is only equal to the power it wields.

There is a scene early on in the movie where Anuja (Jesse Randhawa), a junior professor and fellow hazing victim, musters up her courage to come talk to Dileep in the college canteen. Everybody’s eyes are drawn to them because when Dileep was discovered naked in the boys’ bathroom, she was there with him in a similar state.

“Aren’t you afraid the boys will see you?” he asks, quickly ushering her out, feeling the lash of a hundred sly eyes.
“Even if they do, what will they see that they haven’t already?” she asks bitterly.

In that small conservative town, Kiran’s entire life is that one night Anuja spent in the bathroom. Deemed little better than a whore by the mere fact that she was born on the wrong side of the royal blanket as evidenced by the sneers directed her way by Jadhwal (Pankaj Jha) even as her brother sits just a couple of feet away, like Anuja, she too seeks to exert some control over her life by embracing who she is. And who she is, is her body because that’s all she got by way of inheritance.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Prithvi Bana (Piyush Mishra). The Falstaff figure, Prithvi Bana is perhaps my favorite character. Unlike his younger brother, or indeed the rest of the cast, you never quite understand what makes Prithvi Bana tick – the first time you meet him, he is performing an updated version of Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna about a world in which revolution has bowed down to the joys of soft cotton underwear and independence equals sex while taking a subtle jab at himself and his audience, and you’re immediately flummoxed because this man appears to live in a reality of his own choosing.

It’s shocking because we don’t usually meet a lot of sane people who have that luxury and this man seems to have doubled that up with a window into our own world which he can see disastrously well in all its ugly glory. And he doesn’t hesitate to bring it up at the most inopportune moments either.

Fascinatingly, there is even a touch of Clown from the Harlequinade in Prithvi Bana’s character, which he appears to keep confined in a mute sidekick, painted in the bold colors of Krishna. “Shall we too fly away?” he asks his constant companion as they dance their way towards an open sky from the confines of a dungeon where they have just witnessed a murder; and yet Prithvi Bana chooses to stay in a world that he sees just as clearly and despises even more than Rannsa.

Which bring me to the last and the most interesting (and not just because he’s such a sexy beast) character Mrityunjay Singh a.k.a. Dukey Bana (Kay Kay Menon). Dukey Bana is just as easy to read as his brother is complex – from the moment we’re introduced to him making a speech at the beginning of the film, we know that for him all of this is deeply personal.

“We were betrayed!” he roars at every opportunity. And nothing will make it right again until blood flows in the streets and he is restored to his rightful place. His rightful place being his father’s rightful place as king of this land. Because if this land is hard on its women and those it looks down upon, it’s even harder on those who have it all – at the top of the heap lies the bitter knowledge that you’re nothing more than a cock crowing on top of a dunghill while the mountains mock you in the distance.

Dukey Bana is the man Rannsa does not wish to become, the man Karan has plotted his whole life to become; he is a man women understand at a glance because he is too much a creature of his rigid man-centric world to be more than dimly aware that women have thoughts too, and thus will always be at a disadvantage when it comes to them. Completing the circle, just as his father was done in by a woman, so is he in the end.

Gulaal is not a movie you will like – you’ll either hate it or love it. I fucking adored it and don’t know why it didn’t get a wider release.


Posted by on March 18, 2009 in Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video


16 responses to “Gulaal: The Inner Gulag

  1. shweta

    March 18, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Great review- I am v conflicted about this one, but will watch regardless- probably by less than honorable means, since it wont be released in my part of the world, and who knows when the DVD comes out.

  2. mystic margarita

    March 18, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Lovely review – looking forward to watching this. Loved Dev D btw.

  3. the post-punk cinema club

    March 18, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    I will use this opportunity to state, in a public forum, that I too find Kay Kay Menon to be a sexy, sexy beast. And with the Anil Kapoor moustache? HELLO!

    Alas, yet ANOTHER Anurag Kashyap 2009 release that my desh will never see in theatres.

    *anxiously awaiting the DVDs*

  4. naren

    March 19, 2009 at 12:37 am

    You write the BEST reviews in the world! Off to watch this movie!

    Watched “Little Zizou” last night. Loved it!!

  5. Mamma Mia! Me a Mamma?!?

    March 19, 2009 at 4:57 am

    Wow, what a powerfully written review. This goes on my must-watch list!

  6. Amrita

    March 19, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    Shweta – what is UP with that right? I had to resort to thievery myself to watch this movie. But I’ll make up for it by buying the DVD coz I love it that much. It’s definitely not a cozy evening at home watch, but it’s interesting, y’know? I feel like I saw this movie with my whole brain switched on. Loved it.

    MM & Mamma – thanks, if you do watch this movie, I hope you’ll tell me how it went for you. 🙂

    PPCC – I plan on buying! It’s amazing, seriously! Everything worked for me this time, the surreal bits, the violence, the color, the casting, every single thing. And the music! I really hope they don’t muck up the translations on the DVD because the lyrics are a very important part of the viewing experience. If they do muck it up, I swear I’ll translate the freaking things and put it up. Esp the two poem bits that Piyush Mishra performs. Have you heard the soundtrack yet?
    I’m a little worried about my increasing attraction to mustachioed uncles (Atul Kulkarni is another perennial fave) because I suspect it means I am an Old Fogey but Kay Kay… when a man specializes in playing bastardly people, but still makes you all tingly inside, you know you have A Crush.

    Naren – thank you! I have to see Little Zizou, and I cant wait.

  7. Kabir

    March 19, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    This is seriously an overrated film. it has plenty of flaws and its just okay.

  8. Adithya

    March 21, 2009 at 1:14 am

    It was brilliantly written wasn’t it? Right from the music pieces that play in the background, to that timing of sarfaroshi ki tamanna, the John Lennon mention, it was just too darned well written! It really showed the class of the man who wrote Satya and Kaun.

    I enjoyed this more than I did DevD. That started nagging later in the second half.

  9. Whatsinaname

    March 24, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    You have described the characters excellently as they demanded that sort of attention because of their individual intrigue and poise, especially Prithvi Banna and Karan’s.
    Also Kiran’s acceptance of the role women are meant to play in this elaborate all-male power-play made her a mystery of sorts. The last scene where the gulaal on her face is smudged by mute tears makes a emphatic statement of helplessness and guilt at the same time.

    The film though “tight”-spun in the first half fizzles out into a long-drawn commentary of sorts in the last half, unable to hold the attention of the audience. Sadly, there are “signs” of Kashyap’s self-indulgence getting the better of him ( remember the “HELLO THERE” to “HELL HERE” lights blinking) here too after ‘NO SMOKING’ thought I must add DEV D was a revelation of sorts. Gulaal needed to be a bit more pacy, a bit more compact. The last mujraa being a case in point.

  10. Poonam Sharma

    March 27, 2009 at 5:26 am

    I came here surfing through WP tags. I too loved Gulaal. Here’s my take:

    Btw your blog shows like you are a movie lover, have you heard of MovieManiax Awards, an inititive to recognise ’08 Hindi movies that were not given their due in Filmfare:

    If not voted yet, please vote and spreda the word.

  11. E Pradeep

    April 5, 2009 at 7:31 am

    But is there anything synbollic about Prithvi Bana and his sidekick? What is their significance in the plot? I mean, the movie would read the same without their presence, right?

    Did seem to get predicatable in the second half, after the excellent first half. Anurag has the anger and exhibits but somwhow, seem sto get doused by the end of the entire thing, primarily due to his self-indulgence (of course, who would say that all art is not self-indulegence???).

  12. Amrita

    April 5, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Kabir – ha, like I said, its not for everyone! 🙂

    Adithya – seriously! I thought I’d loved Dev D but then I saw this one and it was like, “oh, that was the appetizer?”

    Whatsinaname – thank you! The funny thing about self indulgence in a filmmaker is that at a certain point if he or she has done their work well and primed you enough, then you’re willing to overlook it because you’ve had such a good time. I think Anurag’s got to that point. 🙂

    Poonam – thanks! Will do!

    Oooh, interesting! I don’t think the movie would have read the same at all, no. Dukey’s obsession with their past and their identity could well have been presented as a species of insanity without Prithvi to lend him context and contrast. Instead it now reads like an emotional reaction to a personal event in the lives of two brothers. They really do form the crux of the movie.

    He’s far too esoteric a character to have one simple straightforward interpretation, but I think his roots are beautifully presented in the Sarfaroshi ki tamanna sequence where he describes himself as a singing mute in the land of the dancing deaf and talks about Lennon.

    The second half… the big problem with it for me was that it returned its focus on poor ol’ Sadsack who really can’t carry the weight. Raja Chaudhury was great as a Dileep but Dileep himself is precisely the kind of person who annoys me. So meh.

  13. Poonam Sharma

    April 6, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    haha I too didn’t like Dileep as a character. But he was the protagonist albeit a loser.

    and I agree with your theory of ‘two brothers’ 😀

  14. Rahul

    April 13, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    When you write a script,you generally want to pin down each character,assign him\her a dominant characteristic and make sure they stick to their character graph as generated by the dominant characteristic. If they wander around a lot from the set premise without any rhyme or reason then it is a bad script.Gulaal does not fail on this,so its a good script.
    But from a film packed with such alive and varied characters played by such accomplished actors you probably expect more. Such as
    1- Complex characters who have more than one dominant characteristic – multi-dimensional characters -so you don’t know how they are going to behave in a given situation
    2-Characters who evolve to acquire new characteristics during the course of the film.
    In Gulaal, almost all the characters are uni dimensional.For eg. Dukey , Prithvi, Karan, Kiran and Dileep. Also,they do not evolve during the course of the film.The only two complex characters, Rannsa and Anuja have very little screen time.
    I would mark it as a good film, not great. I liked Dev D more.

    • Amrita

      April 13, 2009 at 2:02 pm

      At the risk of sounding like an apologist, I would say you’re right in the general sense, but in this specific instance, that’s not strictly true.

      Dukey, for instance, is a person who by definition can’t evolve. And his brother is the same. The central tragedy of their lives is not that their kingdoms were “taken away”, it’s that their father’s reaction to that event has left them locked in one position from which Dukey refuses to move and that in turn has left Prithvi locked in place as well because he won’t leave his brother there by himself. Karan and Kiran have the same problem wrt their illegitimacy but they’re able to plan their moves according to their environment and so manage to survive in some form (I still don’t believe they “won” as such). And Dileep, poor thing, is nowhere near the fittest and is clearly marked for extinction.

      Rannsa and Anuja, like you mention, are people who can see beyond the claustrophobic borders of their present lives and are thus people, not just characters. But the movie, as far as I understood it, isn’t about real life people and the lives they live, it’s about the confined existence of tropes. And as such, Rannsa and Anuja had to be forced out.

      I can see why you preferred Dev D to this – but this is still the movie that blew me away 🙂

  15. fromherewegosublime

    January 22, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    I enjoyed this more than Dev D as well.

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