Normally, I don’t write reviews of movies I don’t finish, but I’m making an exception for Pankh. I had to stop the DVD after 30 minutes, because director Sudipto Chattopadhyay’s ceaselessly spinning and rotating camera gave me motion sickness.
Pankh is Chattopadhyay’s first directorial effort, under the banner White Feather Arthouse Films. Chattopadhyay seems to think making an “art” movie is little more than a license to disregard the rules of competent filmmaking and get away with stuff the censor board would normally disallow.
The movie’s story is fractured into flashbacks and dream sequences that interrupt the flow of the action set in the present. The story revolves around a young man named Jerry (Maradona Rebello). When he was a child, Jerry’s mother, Mary (Lilette Dubey), tried to foist her own dreams of screen stardom onto her son, making him appear in movies dressed as a girl under the stage name “Baby Kusum.”
As an adult, Jerry predictably struggles with his sexual and gender identities. He seeks refuge in a fantasy world where he meets with a glamorous screen diva, played by Bipasha Basu.
The dream sequences are the most physically unsettling parts of the movie. In one, the camera, trained on Basu, rotates on a pivot while simultaneously tilting from side-to-side, like a rocking boat. I got dizzy watching it and turned the DVD off.
But stupid camera techniques are used in the present day scenes as well. At one point, as Jerry talks to an old acquaintance, the camera is turned 90 degrees to the left. Jerry’s face is visible in the top right corner of the screen, while his body is off camera. All that’s visible of his friend is the top of his head in the bottom left corner of the screen.
I could forgive the nauseating camera work if it had a point. In The Blair Witch Project, the shaky handheld camera shots were supposed to make it feel like a documentary. Chattopadhyay uses the camera the way he does in Pankh just because he can.
Chattopadhyay tries to make Pankh edgier with somewhat scandalous content. Jerry smokes and does drugs. Characters swear profusely in English, and their Hindi curse words are bleeped. In one fantasy scene, Jerry is depicted as Jesus carrying a cross. Jerry and another male character are shown masturbating.
As a filmmaker, Chattopadhyay is like the 13-year-old boy left home alone, trying to get away with doing as many “adult” things as possible before his parents return. There’s no maturity to his attempts at edginess. I can only imagine how painful — physically and emotionally — it would’ve been to endure the final 70 minutes of Pankh.