Celluloid adaptations of literary works might sound grand on paper, but executing them is tough. Directors either get it right (think Maqbool, Omkara, The Namesake, Life of Pi and so on), or mess up with the ethos of the work (Issaq, Hello and other inanities). Which is why a good adaptation of a literary work needs to be applauded, if one ever comes across something exceptional.
Ajay Bahl’s debut film BA Pass is exceptional. Very exceptional, actually. You’ll find a lot of reviews floating around in cyberspace about how much of a gripping thriller it is. You’ll find testimonials by other acclaimed directors about the film, dominating its press material. But nothing, literally nothing, prepares you for the deviousness and numerous betrayals that occur one after the other.
Firstly, you need to applaud this debutant director’s guts and vision. He bases the movie on a short story, “The Railway Aunty”, written by a Brooklyn-based author, Mohan Sikka. The short story is part of an anthology of short stories edited by Hirsh Sawhney titled “Delhi Noir”, and published as part of the Akashic Noir series. I read the anthology a few months back, and I can vouch for the fact that the book actually makes you feel scared about taking a trip to the rajdhani. (If you’re still interested, the book is available on all major shopping sites.)
The story, in spite of initially reminding the viewer of the Dustin Hoffman-starrer The Graduate, is highly intriguing. Mukesh, a young boy who has just lost his parents, is packed off to the railway colony in Delhi’s Paharganj area, to live with his bua. Mukesh’s own precarious subject-position in the family, his struggle for a better future for his two sisters, as well as the BA Pass course he gets into at DU—a khichdi of different courses, as he thinks it to be—only deepen his anxieties about his existence. His only source of comfort is playing chess in the Paharganj cemetery, with the bubbly caretaker Johnny.
Enter Sarika, the eponymous “railway aunty” of the story, who sees Mukesh at one of the numerous kitty-parties thrown by his bua for the benefit of all the influential “aunties”—wives who can charm their railway-officer husbands into granting the ever-welcome “promotion”. One day, when Mukesh is sent to Sarika’s house on an errand, he gets seduced by Sarika, and they start an affair. In the meanwhile, Mukesh also slowly gets involved with “servicing” other aunties in the neighbourhood. After this, all hell breaks loose.
I will not divulge more details about the plot because this is where Ajay Bahl’s direction takes over. Sikka’s story is rich in detail, and therefore lends itself to a film adaptation more seamlessly than other works. But Bahl deserves kudos, simply because he fashions a screenplay from this short-story without sacrificing even a single iota of its essence. For me, it felt like watching a more visceral and violent version of Mukesh’s struggles on the big screen.
Bahl knows that with a delicate subject like Sikka’s story, the direction and narrative have to be spot-on. Which is why he takes the very wise decision of not deviating from the story in the first half of the movie. And this is his biggest masterstroke—he uses the first half to set up the main characters and their moves, almost like one of Mukesh’s chess-games. The love-making scenes, which have been a staple of the main trailer of the film, all happen in the first half. Very aesthetically (and in a few cases, very wittily) shot, with no trace of vulgarity, they remind us of what the Bhatts can learn from Bahl.
It is the second half where Bahl lets loose his own creativity. He throws in a surprise appearance by an acclaimed actress (whose name I won’t reveal here), which does not exist in Sikka’s story, but which somehow manages to throw open a mirror to Mukesh and show him what a mess his life has become. He also puts in another shocking episode, which actually makes your stomach churn. Bahl combines all these elements with the remaining narrative of Sikka’s story, in order to produce a climax that you think you are ready for, but just aren’t.
Since Bahl handled the camera on this film himself, he should be credited for making Paharganj escape the pages of literature and take a life of its own on 35mm. Through his eyes, Paharganj becomes more than just a cesspool of corruption—it also becomes a playground for the personal anxieties faced by all the characters in the film. The dingily-lit hotels, the bright neon-lights—Bahl’s understated cinematography is the prime reason why his depiction of Paharganj trounces that of Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D by a mile.
As far as the performances go, everyone is top-notch here. Rajesh Sharma, that wonderful actor from Kolkata who is hitting the ball out of the park nowadays with one powerful performance after another, shines in his brief role as Sarika’s abusive husband Ashok Khanna. Shadab Kamal is brilliant as the naive, stuck-in-a-mess Mukesh, who manages to convey his vulnerability wonderfully through his eyes.
But to me, the real stars of the film are Shilpa Shukla and Dibyendu Bhattacharya. Shilpa’s Sarika act is so powerful, it blows away Shadab’s screen presence to some extent. Her portrayal of Sarika is such that you find her bewitching and menacing in equal measure—something that only Vidya Balan managed to pull off with aplomb in Ishqiya. Dibyendu, on the other hand, is wonderfully restrained as the ever-smiling Johnny, whose dream of going to Mauritius conceals a deeper anxiety.
I would suggest that you take a chance and go and watch BA Pass. It’s not a happy-go-lucky film, but its 90-odd minutes of breathless devilishness will make you sit up. And shudder.