Kshay/Corrode (2011, Karan Gour)
A common fault among human beings is they all too frequently obsess over what they do not own. A particular object catches their eye, for a variety of reasons which may be well founded or not, and a subsequent desire to possess overtakes them. In some cases the desire may be quenched rather simply, while in other instances the lack of ownership leaves a considerable void in their lives, be it true or a fabrication of the mind. This human weakness can serve as inspiration for filmmakers to study how people behave under the stress of created by continuously seeking what is just out of reach. Indie (and Indian) writer-director Karan Gour uses this notion as the driving force for his psychological thriller Kshay, which had limited release last year, playing at a variety of North American film festivals.
Chhay and Arvind (Rasika Dugal and Alekh Sangal) are a happily married couple, who live in a very modest apartment. Their love keeps them close together as they struggle to work their way through some tight economic times. Arvind is member of a construction team, employed by contractor Bupa (Sudhir Pednekar). Bupa, although a long time friend of Arvind, will not give in to the latter's qualms about the difficulties on the job. If the gang does not work faster, they will not receive the sum originally owed to them. Chhay's job is much more undefined, although the film demonstrates that she is an artist, or at least has an appreciation of art. On day, while waiting for her husband to return from work, she steps into a sculpture workshop where she makes the discovery of what to her eyes appears to be a stunning figure of the the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, who represents wealth, prosperity (spiritual and material), light wisdom, among many other ideals. Whether it is a trick of her own mind or that of foul spirits, the statue takes a hold of Chhay's conscious, as she obsesses more and more over the object with every passing day. Henceforth the only certainty in her mind is that she must possess it, regardless of the monetary or human costs...
Discovering impressive independent productions is always a pleasure for any self-respecting film reviewer. Karan Dugour, with what looks to be a very modest budget, succeeds in creating a terrifically moody, ambiguous little piece that remains gripping from beginning to end despite a few slight miscalculations here and there. The most obvious aspect to the film is the director's decision to capture the events with sharp black and white photography. More than a few people of already espoused the wonders of black and white cinema and Between the Seats agrees wholeheartedly, the technique is more often than not beautiful to look at, adding a very classy texture to movies. In the case of Kshay, the effect is twofold. Not only does it immediately capture the attention, but it serves a purpose, thematically speaking. Upon making the discovery of the Lakshmi statue, Chhay's world does, figuratively, become black and white. There is no 'maybe', no 'but', no 'perhaps if'. Her one mind is focused on a singular purpose: obtaining her Lakshmi (which is another clever bit of direction. Chhay refers to the object of her desire as her Lakshmi). Utilizing stylish cinematography is one thing, but to do so with a purpose adds another layer of depth to the film. It is an art house film that actually does pay heed to the notion of being artistic.
Kshay also benefits from scintillating sound design, making for a complete, sometimes unnerving sensory experience. The hushed tone with which the audience hears Chhay's unethical thoughts, the whipping of her long, black hair under the hot morning sun after a shower, the other-worldly gargles emanating from whatever visions plague the protagonist (the audience only sees them from the mysterious vision's point of view), and of course a sumptuously beautiful and haunting score which sharply ties everything together. It goes without saying that from a technical standpoint, Kshay is a success from top to bottom. So far as the sights and sounds go, the viewer will have little trouble feeling immersed int he experience.
Director Gour's skills are thankfully not limited to the technicalities. As the screenwriter, he has delicately put together a story which flirts between some of the more traditional genre fair and astute character piece. With regards to the first point, the mere fact that this is a movie in which a statue has, ostensibly, 'taken over' the mind of a woman means that certain tropes of horror and thriller films are to be embraced. More than once the picture frame will rest on Chhay's appreciative face as she observes what the viewer can assume is an apparition of the sculpture since, clearly, the only place the statue can be is back at the workshop. There is also an imaginative dream sequence which relates to the protagonist's sad past, in which she lost a child during labour, a scene which would feel very much at home in a David Lynch or early David Cronenberg film. On the whole however, the genre aspects play second fiddle to the better than expected drama and solitary character moments which observe Chhay's behaviour as her mental condition grows worse by the day. In addition to actress Rasika Dugal herself putting on a swell performance, some of the best scenes in the film involve Chhay performing schemes to earn more money to pay for her Lakshmi, like entering her neighbour's home to steal valuable furniture. Such moments lend an element of welcomed realism to the picture. Where the film plants the seeds of doubt is in the revelation of the loss of her baby during a conversation with a neighbour. The latter shares a tale of how another woman suffered a similar fate and, after praying many months she received non other than a small Lakshmi sculpture and soon thereafter gave birth to a healthy child. In the end, what is Chhay experiencing? Is there actually a malevolent spirit operating her mind, or is this dark episode a result of long term trauma born out of her previous tragedy? The film plays on one side more than the other, but the inclusion of this bit of information is enough to make the viewer think twice about the nature of the story.
While Kshay plays things smartly most of the way through, it does occasionally indulge too much in some of the genre-heavy ingredients. The statue 'point of view visions' appear a bit too often and rarely amount to much. One in particular has the vision swirl around Chhay as she stands alone in her apartment kitchen for several minutes. Later in the picture, perhaps in an attempt to answer the question as to whether or not this is really occurring or if it is merely a concept of Chhay's mind, her husband Arvind has a traumatic encounter which leads to him having his own nightmarish vision. It is a curious decision. What leads up to that point is a bit weak in terms of narrative and the inclusion of a vision for Arvind confuses matters more than it does clarify them.
Notwithstanding a few miscues, Kshay proves to be well worth the time of any genre film fan. It centres around an interesting protagonist (portrayed by a solid actress) and boasts plenty of truly artistic merit to boot. Hopefully the film will gain further exposure via future film festivals. Karan Gour mat a director's name we hear more often in the future.