Justice is Blind or it is for the Blind: Reviewing Blind Shaft


It seems unfit to write a substantial piece on a movie without explaining its basic premise and the plot. So here it goes: Blind Shaft (2003, Chinese (Mandarain), Director: Li Yang) begins with the two central characters of the movie (as we discover later) Tang and Song speaking with a fellow miner in a coal mine. As they talk about his longing to return home, they hit him over the head killing him and make it look like an accident. They come out of the mine and start acting as if the dead was the brother of Tang. After some shrewd negotiations they manage to extort twenty eight grand from the mine captain to hush up the matter. They leave the mine soon after and go on a spending spree enjoying the pleasures of life. Soon they run out of money and as they stand in town among the crowd waiting for work opportunities, they stumble into a young 16 year-old boy and it is only inevitable that they immediately see in him their new victim. They get him to memorize a new name and ask him to lie about his age. They take him to the mine as the nephew of Tang and plan to kill him off at an opportune moment and make a killing from his death.

An unknown death: is forgetting denial of justice?

Blind Shaft the name itself would seem to suggest not only the dark cold mine shaft cut off from the rest of the world but also a place so dark and isolated that it is beyond the reach of the law and justice. A place where neither there is “no union, no safety standards, pitifully low wages, no law given such an environment, it perhaps isn’t a surprise that the worst aspects of humanity rise to the surface.” For all the state and its law knows the mines have been closed after being considered too dangerous and don’t even exist. The workers working there are of course then the “non existent non people”.
The person who is chosen as the target by the duo is obviously someone who is alone and has no other friend or relative working with him. In all possibility even his family is also not aware where he is. There is no one who knows the story of his life. No one would come to know when he dies that who it was that died; that is who other than a nameless and faceless mineworker. If the only impact of a death left in the world is in the memories of the dead, then perhaps someone who dies an unknown death is not dead at all. In Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawk go to a cemetery, which does not have the names of the dead on the tombstones. No one knows who the dead were. Most probably they were dead from capsized boats and suicides at the beginning of the 20th century. It is called the cemetery of no name. She says to him, “….if none of your family or friends knew you were dead…its like not really being dead. The people could invent the best and the worst for you.”
In one instance in blind shaft, Song is quite disturbed by the possibility that Song the kid that they plan to kill might be the son of one of their earlier victims. He does not want his entire family line to be ended by killing the kid. The family line is not about the gene pool. It means to keep alive the name of the family; to keep alive the memories of the dead. If the entire family line would be wiped out, there would be no one to remember the dead. That seems to Song as being a greater injustice than actually killing a man.

In Blind Shaft, there is no justice for the dead because firstly they are not dead (because their friends and family do not know that they are dead) and secondly because no one alive except their killers know that they were murdered. As far as the law is concerned it does not know that they are dead or they were or that they existed in the first place.
So of course, there is no hope for justice for those whose death has also been forgotten or rather not registered in the memory at all. That is no justice before the law but there is always narrative justice.

The Villains: or rather the victims?

Somewhere down the line in the movie one starts feeling for the killer duo. They are not exactly maniacal blood thirsty criminals. For them it seems to be just the only possible way of making a decent living and supporting their families. Well, they are quite cold blooded in the sense that they do not feel sympathy for their victim or suffer from guilt pangs but they do not enjoy it as well. They have a rather a very business like attitude and a meticulous routine for everything right down to the lines of conversation with the soon to be deceased just before he is murdered. But as the movie unfold you realise that in the land of abject poverty, lawlessness of the greedy mine owners and callous ‘hand in glove’ agents of law, they are indeed walking on a thin line between survival and elimination. Even when they are extracting the money from the mine owners they have to be careful not to ask for too much because if it would be cheaper for the mine owner to kill both of them off and instead pay the cops to hush up the matter, the ruthless mine owner would not hesitate from doing so. In a dog eats dog world, they are at a quite low rung in the food chain.

Narrative Justice in Blind Shaft

In a piece of fiction whether on paper or movie screen, it is possible to do justice even when the law has failed to do so. This is what is called ‘poetic’ or narrative justice- perhaps a literary equivalent of the ‘divine justice’ in real life. So the good guys have to win and the bad guys have to lose (unless of course one is making a movie like Zodiac where winning or losing are quite immaterial).
So Blind Shaft also employs narrative justice to make the ending of an otherwise bleak and uncomforting movie rather ‘just’ and acceptable. The killers get their ‘due’ and the innocent not only escapes unharmed but also earns a substantial amount from the death of his ‘would have been’ killers. It is quite ironical that the contract that Tang and Song enter into with the mine owner to make money from the death of the kid actually ends up in earning money for the kid. Although one can feel sorry for Song who actually develops traces of affection for the kid and is reluctant to kill him and the story is as harsh to him as it is to Tang who remains dispassionate, focussed and rather cruel. But then hey, Song still has to pay for his past deeds, right? So the way he meets his end is quite ‘just’ as per the statutes of narrative justice.
If retribution is the only manifestation of justice then narrative justice delivers justice quite efficiently and effectively. All the victims of Song and Tang who did not have access to law or justice get redemption in fell swoop through narrative justice by their dying of each other’s hands.

PS: This was published in Silhouette Vol. VI

Smoke ‘em up: of ‘No Smoking’ and smoking no’s


What is it to be alive? To have desires; to be free to love someone; to have the choice to die; to have the liberty to smoke!

K is a narcissist. He loves to admire himself in the mirror and no one tells him what to do. Nicotine flows in his blood and the smoke of cigarettes creates a thrilling aura around him. But when his wife decides to walk out on him, he agrees to go to Prayogshala- a rehab not so much to give up smoking but as to have a look. Prayogshala-a blend of ultra modern and the ancient turns out to be an omnipresent, all knowing, and all powerful entity. Once you are in, there is no escaping from the grip of the ‘Pryogshala’. It is run by one Guru Ghantal Baba Bengali. His methods involve putting the patient’s relatives in gas chambers, chopping off his fingers, bumping off his wife and so on to cure the addiction.
In the second half of the movie the surreal becomes quite indistinguishable from ..well, the ‘real’ and you are totally at the mercy of the director. To borrow an overused phrase, he is quite ‘self indulgent’ and makes no attempt to explain the movie to viewers. So K keeps on dipping in and out of dreams even as you are left wondering whether all the trauma that he is going through is happening only inside his head.
The plot reaches its logical conclusion with his ‘antar atma’ being separated from his body and thereby ridding him of all his desires.

Technically the movie is brilliant. Some shots like the panorama of Mumbai’s skyline and the streaming traffic below from K’s apartment and those of middle of nowhere in Siberia are simply breathtaking. The instant disgust and revulsion that the atmosphere of ‘Prayogshala’ evokes is no less an achievement. The use of sepia frames and comic book like blurbs to humorous effect is another first for Hindi movies.
John Abraham is at his best when he is not speaking and thankfully in this movie, he does not have a lot of dialogues and his body language does the talking quite brilliantly. Paresh Rawal is menacing and funny in just the perfect proportions.

A number of people have criticized the movie because it did not make them tremble before lighting another cigarette. Perhaps with a name like 'No Smoking’ they were expecting a ‘Requiem for a Dream’ for smokers (that the latter has a cult following among the junkies makes for an interesting study in itself).
But then I am not sure that Anurag Kashyap (AK) started off to make an anti smoking movie in the first place. That is a job best left to a certain Dr Anbhumani Ramadoss. In fact cigarette at best is a metaphor here for freedom. If you have killed all your desires, then perhaps you are as good as dead. Not having desires does not mean that you are close to Nirvana or perfection but perhaps that you are closer to depression! No smoking is of course at the core a story of rebellion but in total opposition to what you would expect such a movie to be, it does not romanticize or encourage rebellion. It shows the plight of a rebel, the price that he has to pay. It is not a movie for rebellion; it is a movie about rebellion. And it ends with an ominous message: sooner or later, a rebel has to die. Die by conforming himself.

‘No Smoking’ is one movie which would be remembered in the popular memory not for what it was but what people (or rather the people who call themselves ‘critics’) said about it (not very unlike Jhoom Barabar Jhoom). Almost everyone panned it. They called it a tribute of a self obsessed man to himself. The reviews read like admonitions to Anurag Kashyap for his vanity. “Why”, they shouted “make a movie which no one can understand? What is the point of making a movie which makes no sense? Why make a movie which neither entertains not conveys a message?”
This is what Khaled Mohammed wrote in his review,
“Sir Kashyap, your genius is blinding. Thank you for Quitters’ Inc which you have set in Mumbai and Siberia. And if you ask me, at this very point, I don’t want to quit smoking. I want to quit Kashyaping. See a Bhojpuri or a Blogpuri movie. Just don’t do this to me sir, please, don’t. The rest of the world needs your brain. Ulp, I don’t”

Well, one can’t but help remembering something written by one Mr Ellsworth M Toohey,
“It is not our function –paraphrasing a philosopher whom we do not like-to be a fly swatter, but when a fly acquires delusions of grandeur, the best of us must stoop to do a little job of extermination.”

But if you google the phrases ‘No Smoking’ and ‘Reviews’ the first few results would be of ‘reviews of reviews’, in other words bloggers pitching in for AK and condemning the ‘old men of reviewing’ as senile in the choicest of abuses. It would not be incorrect to say that AK asked for it. With shouting all those cries of rebellion and angst on PFC he has encouraged people- both his detractors and his supporters to focus on him and not his work. He has sought to become larger than his movies. If a guy starts comparing himself with ‘Howard Roark’ publicly, there is something wrong with him. If for no other reason then for the fact that Howard Roark would never do that. He would let his work speak for himself; something AK has to learn. Hopefully with Hanuman Returns doing well and AK keeping a relatively low profile about the movie things will be back on course for him. After all he has movies like Black Friday and Paanch also to his credit which even the most staunch of AK bashers can’t damn.

PRODIGY: short story

As he slipped out of the shining new Porsche Cayenne, a gust of wind carrying sand hit Aditya Singh straight in the face. As he gently brushed the corner of his eyes to remove the sand, he found himself transposed to his tiny little hamlet in Banswara. He was thirteen years old again, walking beside his father to the weekly haat bazaar in the nearby village. It was difficult for him to keep up on the sand covered pathways with his father’s brisk pace but he did not want it to be seen that he had to run to be at par with his walk. This resulted in his taking hilariously long steps.
A smile crossed his lips.
Of course then he did not see it as funny, it was an assertion of growing up, of declaring to whoever was watching that he was ready to step into the shoes of his father. No one called him Aditya, back then he was just Adi.
In the market he would watch with disdain as his father would spread a rough cot on the side of the dusty road and slowly arrange his things.
While other traders selling all kinds of things, from tit bits to utensils to clothes would be shouting at top of their voices to attract the customers to their wares, his father would make the barest of attempts of doing so. Most of the times unable to sell much during the day, he would, in the evening settle for a barter exchange of his goods with other traders which would invariably be a bad deal as opposed to have been paid in currency by the customers. Also, the only goods left unsold at the end of the day were the ones which were the worst. Even on days when he managed to sell things, he would not fare much better as bargaining was not his cup of tea. While, other traders would relish bargaining and start with four times of the price they actually expected, his father would settle to whatever price the buyer would quote without much haggling. Soon he stopped standing by his father’s side all day and suffer through the monotonous routine. He would roam around in the market and see how other traders would be doing much better business through their social skills although their goods were not any better than his father’s. He realized how inept his father was at trading and the only reason why his family did not starve was because he did this only for six months in the year. In the other half of the year, the family would cultivate wheat in the small tract of land that they owned and after satisfying their subsistence needs, it left them with enough surplus to sell and afford the luxury of his father’s poor trading.
It did not take him long to realize that he could do a much better job as a trader than his father. He was smart and he knew it. Although he had gone to the school for only five years, all his teachers had proclaimed him as a brilliant and exceptionally bright student. He had to leave the studies when his mother fell sick in the agricultural season and his father needed his assistance. Somehow, he never felt like going back to the school after that and instead he took a fancy to the market. As he would show keen interest in the transactions, other traders would teach him the nitty-gritty of their trade. They would pass him on the tricks to lure the customer and extract the maximum out of him depending upon factors like his need and economic status. All these had to be picked up from his appearance and tone.
On one of those days in the market he saw a trader who he had never seen before. He had a rather impressive appearance as compared to the rest who were mostly farmers from villages or from small towns and looked pretty shabby. But this trader was wearing shining deep blue robe over a white shirt and had a rather different turban with a feather tucked into it. He had erected a kind of tent over his goods and was turning over what looked to young Adi like a manuscript. He showed no interest in the customers or the proceedings in the market and even others seemed hesitant to approach him, clearly he was an outsider.
“What do you want?” barked the man with the turban as he curiously approached him.
He told him that he just wanted to know what he sold since he did not see any goods on display. The man in the turban chuckled at the interest shown by the young boy and said, “I do not sell; I buy things, old and rare pieces.”

“I see, and what do you with them?”

“I go to the cities and sell them there.” The man in the turban had probably not talked to anyone all day and decided to play along in this little game of the kid. This is why he took his queries with the sincerity that was reserved only for serious prospective clients.
“What are the kinds of things that you buy?” asked Adi with a little more confidence.
“Mostly old paintings, swords, jewelry and other decorative items; the older the better.”

“And how do you pay?” his tone was now acquiring the assertiveness of a seasoned trader. That he made a good profit out of the trade was clear to Adi from his attire and demeanor.

“With these”, he said, flashing a couple of crisp ten Rupee notes, “and I pay well.”

“Will you be here next week as well?”

“Yes, why do you have something to sell?” the tinge of mockery in his voice suggested that the man was finally bored with this little game with the kid.

“Maybe”, and with this Adi walked off.

He spent that night turning over and over in his khat. This was his chance to enter the trade. Other traders knew him well but they would not deal with him as they thought that he was merely a kid. But this outsider would have no such qualms. All he needed was to sell him something; make a decent profit on it and then it would be easy for him to convince his father and other traders also that he was old enough to enter trade. But what was there within the mud walls of his hut that could be of some value to the trader with turban? This question kept him troubled all night.
As the first rays of sun filtered from the creek between the wooden doors, he woke up with the answer. His mother had a heavy golden colored necklace which was certainly the most attractive piece of her jewelry, not that she had many. He remembered asking her if it was pure gold, and she had laughed and said that it was merely sone ka paani (gold plated) and when he kept asking her how much was it worth. “Not more than ten Rupees” she had said distantly. He had seen her wrapping it in a red cloth pouch and putting it in the big wheat container after coming from marriages and religious ceremonies.
The first opportunity that he got of being alone in the hut, he removed the stone slab covering the container and slipped his hand inside. After a bit of groping around in the wheat grains, he found what he was looking for. He did not take the pouch out and let it remain there.
Next Sunday as his father was getting ready, he took out the pouch and tied it in the folds of his dhoti and covered it with the kurta. He felt a slight hesitation in doing this because he knew this was stealing. But what he also knew was that there was no other way. He had to start somewhere and his parents would not let him do anything on his own.
Is it not the case always? The parents have no clue that their children have grown up, that they can do things on their own, maybe even better than what they themselves could do. Many a times it is only when an outsider tells them about their exploits that they realize the capabilities of someone who until then was completely dependent upon them.

After spending an hour and half by his father’s side, he slipped to look for the man with the turban. Yes, he was there. He was talking to someone. Although he was at a distance it was clear that the discussion that the men were having was not a very cordial one. Both of them were raising their fists now and again. Finally, the other man left with a strained face, muttering abuses. This was nothing new in the market though; he had seen the traders as well as the customers lose their temper quite a lot of times. When it came to blows the people around interfered but as long as it was merely a verbal altercation, everyone stood by and enjoyed the abuses being hurled all around. It was almost a regular feature of the market which everyone enjoyed; sometimes he wondered that even the parties involved derived a perverted pleasure out of it.

As he approached the man with the turban, he could see that his was still scarlet from the exertion that the last interaction had involved.
“OH, its you again; what do you want today?” clearly the man was in no mood for humour.
“I have something which you may want to buy”, now that he had come this far he was not going to waver in confidence.

“Really, then show me” the man was regaining his composure.

“Here” he said and untied the top of the packet and took out the necklace.

The man did not evince much interest in it as he took the necklace in his hand. But Adi had spent long enough time in the market to know that seasoned traders do not let their interest drip from their faces.
“It does not look very old” the man remarked as he casually yet carefully turned it over.

“It has been in our family for four generations”. He was not sure of this but then he knew neither was the man in turban and it certainly looked quite old.

“Certainly not gold.” The man clearly did not need his opinion on this one.

“But still quite valuable because of the design and the gems” It had to be, it looked beautiful.

“Maybe, I’ll be able to sell it some foreigner in the city. How much do you want for it?”

“How much can you pay for it?”
(Rule number one: Never tell your reserve price, let the customer value the good first.)

“Not more than twenty Rupees”

“Ha, you think that I am a child and you can fool me, or maybe you are just kidding with me. Please, give me back my necklace.”
(Rule number two: If the customer refuses to let go of the good, he will buy it, you just have to find the maximum price he’ll pay for it.)

“No, no. You tell me how much do you want.”

“Not less than a Hundred Rupees.”
(Rule number three: Start bargaining with five times the minimum price that you would be willing to accept.)

“Come on, now you are asking for too much. How about thirty?”

It took some twenty minutes of bargaining and finally they settled for sixty Rupees. At the end of it both of them acted as if the other had practically robbed him. Although, in his heart Adi was more than content with having made a profit of six times the investment. Now, all he had to do was to look for a place to invest this money.
He spent the entire day looking for some things he could buy to invest his new found finances. When till evening he could not find anything interesting, he decided to come back again on next Sunday to continue his search. As he was walking back with his father, he noticed that the man in the turban was loading his tent and goods on a cart; from the conversation that he was having with his servants it was clear that he was moving to another village. He avoided looking at the man, lest he may say something which would reveal to his father what he had been up to. His father was leaving that night for a close relative’s marriage at a distant place. The visit would take him ten days and although, he won’t let Adi sell the goods on his own in the market, he could certainly come here on his own. This was all the better for him as he would have plenty of time and would be able to haggle with the traders without the fear of his father looking over his shoulder.

He had decided that he would not break the news that he had sold the necklace till he had invested a part of the money in some other transaction; that would mean at least till next Sunday.
As it turned out, he did not have to wait that long. Soon after his father had left, his mother discovered that the necklace was missing. She was taking out some wheat for grinding it in the chakki, when she looked to feel the packet as a habit. When she found it to be missing, her first reaction was that she must have kept it somewhere else but as she failed to find it anywhere, it turned into disbelief and horror. Thefts were almost unheard of in their little hamlet and that one had happened to them, instead of anyone else was a really dreadful thought. As an afterthought she started asking Adi about it. Now, he knew that there was no point in hiding it, since anyways sooner or later he would himself have told them and it was not something to be ashamed of.
“I have sold it.”

“What?” his mother reacted as if he had spoken in a foreign language.
“Yes, I have sold it. But do not worry. I got sixty Rupees for it.” he took out the money.

“Sixty... It was not worth less than seven hundred. Pure gold…..” his mother’s voice trailed into silence. She did not shout or hit him but staggered and sank to the ground.

“But you said…..” he suddenly felt he had been hit on the head with a plank.

What happened after that was mostly hazy in his memory. That was the last night he spent in the village, before the sun rose, he was in Murea village, catching a train to the city.

As the durban executed a quick salute to the man emerging out of the glass doors of the building, Aditya Singh was brought out of his trance. He put his white cap back on and held the back door of the car open.