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Losing only some plots

The culinary equivalent of Mirch would be a packet of instant soup. It is as little about sex as it is spicy. But it is competent and comforting and sometimes that’s all you need. Shukla strings four stories about adultery- two set in ancient times and two contemporary. The stories have the air of fables about them offset by the attempted realism of the connecting plot. All four stories are narrated by an idealistic filmmaker Maanav (Arunodaya Singh) as part of a pitch to a Bollywood producer (Sushant Singh) who thinks that the film Maanav really wants to make cannot be sold. Pulled up by his girlfriend Ruchi (Shahana Goswami) for being an escapist, he comes around to the idea that “you must play the game dictated by the market, but make your own rules”.

The producer keeps questioning the viability of these fables given that they don’t have a connecting plot. This makes the device a clever meta-narrative that lets us in into the process of transference of an idea into the Bollywood mould, while simultaneously interpreting and selling the stories to us by debating their merit and morality. If only the idea was not let down by uninspired craft- tacky sets, patchy camerawork and a badly written and enacted central character, Maanav. The stories themselves are better executed- each story has its own look and feel. But given the potential of craft in telling tales like these, the film remains significantly under-crafted.

The underwhelming form merges with the underexplored content. This is particularly disappointing because Shukla’s film is sown with crackling ideas. On one level it is simply a celebration of stories- their timelessness, universality, enthralling twists and inexplicable wonders. Even the simplest of them can be deeply disturbing, as is evident from Ruchi and the producer’s reactions to to Maanav’s stories. Charged with deceptively simple erotic wit, the stories contain within their folds the key to larger questions about love, morality, desire and their uneasy union in marriage.

On another level, the film contemplates the storyteller’s predicament. The quandary of the cheating wives is reflected in Maanav giving in to the lure of ‘spicy’ stories and relishing them wholeheartedly when the ideal ‘great’ story he is committed to fails to materialise. But will these stories work for men who come across as cuckolded buffoons deserving of their misery? Will women participate in the revelry of their sexuality and intelligence or flinch at coming across as ‘loose-charactered’?

While in the first two stories, women cheat out of guiltless desire, the latter two stories are more layered. In the first, a wife takes to cheating after her husband judges her for being brazenly sexual with him and in the second she asks why her husband paying for sex outside home should be seen differently from her charging for sex with strangers. In the layering is the justification of the act, which is not only patronizing but also missing the abandon of the first two fables.

The larger question is, can the storyteller ever ignore the politics of a story and tell it simply for its charms? Perhaps not. For he stands naked behind their sheer veil, baring his understanding of the world for all to judge. The problem with Shukla’s film is that he does not bare himself enough through his story. The promise of ideas is not harvested. Mirch has all the ingredients to stimulate and challenge but it only plays out as instant entertainment for the mindful.

Originally published in Tehelka.

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