Let’s not make wrong assumptions. Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) is not an experimental film, although it is considerably avant-garde in comparison to the existing norms of Bollywood, with its premise, non-professional casting, sound design and somewhat non-conformist grammar. The promos may have given one the idea that it is a film that works in ultra-Brechtian mode. Far from that, the film doesn’t ever breach the fourth wall, thanks to its choice of making the film appear entirely subjective (It actually isn’t as is revealed by certain shots). Another misconception the promotional ads might have given birth to is that Banerjee’s film is highly agenda-driven. This was my biggest fear too, that Banerjee might be presenting an extended, dressed-up message pertaining to mass media and reality TV. Thankfully, not considering its minor flights into Madhur Bhandarkar-ness, the film eschews making any overt statement and lets the implication of its choices speak for itself. Banerjee uses a number of clever and not-so-clever tricks to make the film straddle the zones of populist and experimental cinema, the brilliant and the banal and art and entertainment. But, perhaps, the best part about the whole venture is that it stands witness to the fact that it isn’t just because of the star or studio system that our cinema is in such a poor shape. And that good cinema can well be produced under shoestring budgets.
Love, Sex Aur Dhokha presents three stories, running for about 40 minutes each, each of which is introduced by an apt B-movie title, suggesting the highly fictional and staged nature of the segments to follow. Indeed, each of the three stories amounts to some form of performance or the other. The first segment gives us a student filmmaker, Rahul (Anshuman Jha), who idolizes Aditya Chopra and is trying to complete his diploma film that takes off from his mentor’s much loved Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995). The second part tells the story of a retail store manager, ironically named Adarsh (Raj Kumar Yadav), who is terribly pressed for money and plans to break through, not without much hesitation, by rigging up a sex scandal. And the third section gives us a television reporter, Prabhat (Amit Sial), and his aide, whom he saves from suicide, trying to blow the cover of a vulgar pop-star by setting up a sting operation. Banerjee uses the oldest trick of the new millennium to tie the three disparate stories together, using overlapping narratives and intersecting references and conversations, whose artificiality shows up at a few places, but not so much as to make the choice seem completely inorganic. In all three segments, there is at least one diegetic camera recording all the events – of Rahul’s professional camera, the CCTC cameras and Prabhat’s spy-cam – whose footage Banerjee splices and slices to form a seamless narrative.
The first segment, at first glance, seems cut off thematically from the other two. However, gradually, it reveals itself as a gateway to the other two segments, which starkly diverge from the idea the first one presents. Rahul, like the bumbling duo of Ishqiya (2010), does not understand the difference between life and art. He believes that life can proceed the same way as one of his mentor’s movies. He tries to port Bollywood culture on to his life – scribbling his beloved’s name on trees, eloping with friends’ help a la Saathiya (2002) and making late night phone calls to surprise his sweetheart. One even wonders if his real name is Rahul or if it is another one of his lame attempts at merging life with pop art. In other words, he does not realize that his life is the exact negation of the film he is making. A cut from the smiling face of Shruti within the film gives way to the image of her crying in reality. A scene in Rahul’s film is interrupted by a similar incident happening in real life. Shruti’s father turns out to be far from the generous father in his film. Rahul films his life 24×7, in order to send it to his idol some day, with a belief that it is as fairytale-like as the films he likes (there is even a kiss scene in this section that is severed from the frame in a manner characteristic of Bollywood). Rahul, eventually, pays the price for not understanding the vast chasm that exists between reality and its popular representation, an instance of which he is creating as his diploma project (I don’t understand why Banerjee feels the need to exaggerate the film within the film so much to emphasize this dichotomy. Comic relief, maybe).
Having established the disjunction between truth and its representation, Banerjee’s film attempts to explore the ethics of representation in the second segment of the film. Banerjee bases this part of the film fittingly in a supermarket – the temple of commodification and commerce. Characters, especially the two women in this segment, are almost always filmed standing amidst aisles filled with FMCG products, wearing clothing that is as colourful as the products themselves. One person in the mall tells us how commercially profitable the CCTV is, citing the hefty amount of money that the footage of a shootout brought. Welcome to the world of consumer capitalism, where violence and sex are commodities to be proliferated, packaged, advertised and sold. The moral conflict that Adarsh is presented with, when he has the option of switching off the CCTV system, is the quintessential moral question underlying capitalism – just how far will you go? In fact, the target is capitalism in all three segments of the film. Only that it is indicted through its powerful agents – mass media and Bollywood. Adarsh himself is a more polished and less addicted version of Rahul in the way he is unable to comprehend the difference between reality and its representation (and, hence perhaps, the gravity and possible consequences of his moral choice). In a cheeky homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964), Adarsh gloriously “performs”, in true Bollywood fashion, a fake death stunt while he frets when an actual shootout follows. The sex scene itself is filmed head on and plays out between the storeroom shelf and a curtain suggestive of a theatrical performance.
Following this segment on the ethics of representation, Banerjee takes up the tautological (and Godardian) question of representation of ethics. This third section of the film, which deals with a sting operation performed by a private news network, is, on paper, the richest segment of the film for it’s the most morally ambiguous of the three. Morally ambiguous because, unlike the other two segments, we just aren’t able to embrace any particular side or character here. The pop-star’s activities may be highly questionable and even downright immoral, but so are the methods of the news network. Each character in this segment is prostituting himself/herself in one way or the other (Of course, here too, the punching bag is capitalism). Only that the news network, the self-proclaimed keeper of truth and justice, seems licensed to do it. More than acting as a medium of announcement, this news network, as in reality, likes to work as a moral police, telling its people what is ethically right, what is wrong, when to be enraged at someone and when to cheer for some lame event. There is apparently no difference between what the news network editor does and what Adarsh does. However, there is a ray of hope that is presented in this segment in the form of (again, the aptly named) Prabhat, the least unethical person in the film and the alter ego of the director himself perhaps, who refuses to hand over any of the footage that he has shot, sacrificing fame and money for integrity.
Of course, Banerjee’s film isn’t as consistent and ambitious in presenting us with such moral ambiguity. The characters in the first two segments are mostly black and white and we are told beforehand whom to root for and whom to curse. But as such, the film has a set of ethics (evident from its editing pattern), close to that of Prabhat’s, which it staunchly adheres to, even to the point of flaunting it. The possibly sensational sex scene is dimly lit and choreographed at a considerable distance from the camera that it is completely de-eroticized. So is the case with the murder in the first segment. In all three segments, reality is manipulated to a large extent for the sake of representation – Rahul’s film, the MMS clip and the sting operation footage – with a profit motive. Although the titular love, sex and betrayal form the prime motifs in the first, second and third segments respectively, it is clear that all three elements run though all the three sections of the film in a manner that betrays much cynicism about cinema. This cynicism towards such an important medium by a filmmaker is certainly off-putting until Banerjee presents the warm epilogue to the film, where a young girl wields the camera and charmingly interviews the various characters of the film. Yes, Banerjee does seem to recognize the power of cinema in preserving life’s most precious and fleeting moments, to convert them into art and preserve them for eternity.