KASH (Study of a film by Souman Bose)
By Walter Krochmal
To those of us unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of India’s film industry, Kash (from the Farsi “puff” or “drag”), the most recent feature by multi-talented Kolkata actor/filmmaker/producer Souman Bose, may look like the most artistic anti-smoking campaign ad ever produced. It works its magic without a single clinical photograph of a nicotine-blackened lung. Instead the simple, plaintive, phrase “Smoking causes cancer” recurs as an onscreen caption and voice-over while the film submerges us in a plotline that alternately repels us and draws us into the delicious, damaging habit. The protagonist’s dwelling, peopled with paintings, line drawings and images of people smoking or of various scenarios enveloped in smoke -- Hindu deities, saddhus, local personalities, world-famous celebrities and manmade landscapes– does much to reinforce this impression.
The anti-smoking message, however, is not part of the plot. It is actually a Central Board of Film Certification of India requirement for every frame in which people smoke or exhibit cigarettes. Without it – and without the content cuts ordered by the Board– Kash would not have screened in its native country. Craftily enough, rather than allowing it to intrude on his art, Mr. Bose has seamlessly integrated this message into the fabric of the film, where it provides an effective foil to a fantastical/naturalistic storyline accentuated by his wry delivery on the voice-over version. Ultimately, Kash only touches on the surface theme of addiction in order to reach for deeper themes of rebellion against societal mores, even the well-intended ones. Its subtle approach gives the audience the leeway to derive their own personal themes from viewing it, ultimately bringing more resonance and permanence to the message and core themes.
Protagonist Kashi “Puffy” Mehrothra, played by Mr. Bose, has drawn inspiration from the childhood figure of a poor peddler of beedi, or homemade Indian cigars, who went on to become a well-to-do tobacco entrepreneur. Kashi decides he can go the man one better, and makes tobacco entrepreneurship a full-on obsession. He becomes an agoraphobic chain-smoker/taste-tester, a meticulous collector of cigarette packaging, a master tobacco blender. He purchases a microscope to scrutinize the molecular structure of as many brands of the leaf as he can lay hands on. The first glimpse we get of his bedroom (which he has turned into the blazingly colorful gallery of smoking figures), an old girlfriend who has come to visit remark that he if he had painted these figures on canvas he would be a millionaire. Mr. Bose is an accomplished visual artist, and this backdrop adds an important counterweight to the drab streets of Kolkata, where his Kashi ventures only when absolutely necessary, and the single track along which Kashi’s mind runs. They also provide important subliminal messages about themes of rebellious individuality, perseverance, and the extreme of unhealthy obsession. These linger long after the final credits, and provide a powerful underscoring of the film’s soft-spoken dialogue.
Kashi’s obsession deepens and he begins to find himself increasingly alone. His girlfriend, upset at his late arrival for a lunch date, reprimands him for his yellow teeth and permanent stench, then leaves him. Seeing her on the street later on with the Other Man she had been seeing behind his back, he stalks them all the way to the man’s house, where spying her naked, he forces his way past his rival, shoves her to the ground and moves on.
The film’s turning point comes when suddenly nothing Kashi uses to light his cigarettes works. In despair, he calls a buddy for help to light up one late night. Soon a terrorific, demon-like figure appears to him every time he attempts to light up, filling him with such dread that it forces him to attempt to quit… against nasty odds. His drinking buddies scoff at him when he refuses a drag. A psychologist diagnoses Kashi’s malaise as hallucinations. Kashi counters that this figure is real, that he feels it has the physical power to strangle him, and he sees the figure present in the doctor’s office, continuing to torment him.
Kashi calls an old flame to assuage his loneliness and they have an idyllic day out and around Kolkata. Mistaking her for his demon when he lights up after a session of lovemaking, he pushes her off the bed and she flees. By film’s end, another female visitor to his home encounters the demon in his bathroom, and takes to her heels too. This demon, apparently, lives within us all and outside the boundaries of time and threatens to bring Kashi’s life crashing down.
Mr. Bose’s work, true to the spirit of arthouse film, eschews fancy special effects, lavish sets and costumes, relying instead on a deceptively simple storyline, restrained but powerful acting, clear directing and meticulous attention to visual and aural details (the soundtrack stands alone as a work of art). The demon figure harks back to F.W. Murnau’s no-frills terror-next-door Nosferatu, commanding fear and awe based on an appearance that manages to instill fear through an almost mundane “realness.” Mr. Bose’s wide-ranging skills and sure hand have allowed him to create a work for the 21st century in a style that seamlessly fuses the genres of horror, romance, psychological thriller and naturalism, the ancient and the contemporary, the exotic and the familiar. Kash is a transcendent piece of poetic arthouse cinema that clamors for a global audience.
Kash will have its United States premiere on Sunday, December 6th 2015 as part of Bronx World Film Cycle, Winter 2015 in New York City