For a movie with a firm idea about what it intends to convey politically, Jayan Cherian’s Ka Bodyscapes exercises admirable restraint. And for me it had this simple message: You may force the body of an artist into submission, but the soul of the artist should soldier on until it reaches its destination. A destination where the art is finally free from the assault of political groups, and, god willing, censorship boards.
The story of “Ka Bodyscapes” unfolds on three levels, and it revolves around the shared, if not interlocking, struggle of three individuals in search of personal freedom. The three share many things in common, but are united by a desire to be free from the shackles of a parochial society composed of religious bigots and sundry other guardians of culture and traditions.
The film does not start in media res, rather it takes its time, gradually establishing all three characters. We learn that Harris is a bodyscape painter photographer who is all set to showcase his work at an exhibition in town. He invites Vishnu, a bashful homosexual friend, to his lodge. As Harris makes Vishnu the subject of his painting, and starts chipping away at what looks like his most cherished work, his landlord gives him an ultimatum demanding the payment of overdue rent. Vishnu gets job as Graphic designer at a fundamentalist religious magazine run by his uncle who thoroughly disapproves of his relationship with Harris.
Enter Harris’s friend, Zia, a product of secular modernity; Perhaps writer’s own template of liberal Muslim woman who wears Hijab to work, and keeps a copy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book in her room. She snaps at the nagging orthodox Grandma for moralizing her niece about the shortness of her skirt. By day she resignedly dances to the tune of a pushy manager, by night she champions women’s rights on facebook, feels herself, and gazes longingly at her reflection in the mirror. Director Jayan sifts through layers of her character with the efficiency of a seasoned psychoanalyst, revealing for us the progressive female in all her complexities.
As if the scene where Zia masturbating under a bed spread wasn’t discreet enough, there is censorship in place to preserve Indian cinema’s remaining proprieties. Things take a bad turn at workplace for Zia after she jumped into the defense of a female colleague accused of menstruating (polluting) the office toilet. Zia rallies a group of protesters and take it to the street. They are arrested by the police despite carrying a sanction, and one must assume that the struggle must go on.
I’m not going to give the climax away. It had a funny use of symbolism that left me feeling alternately confused and amused. Although I’m not sure if I fully got it, it was as satisfying as decoding the wordplay in the movie title (“Ka” apparently denotes power of life). The film has an inordinate number of dialogue free sequences, and I could see it consciously slip into self-indulgent spells that I didn’t mind getting lost in, thanks to the meditatively immersive background music. It does not invite viewers to take sides in the cultural and ideological battle unfolding before their eyes, nor does it make its lead character Harris spout profound nonsense with the smug self-assurance of artist types. In Harris you see someone who’s probably grown inured to justifying his work to detractors as opposed to explaining it to appreciators. The film is more like an understated tribute to all the voiceless artists, and their resilience shown in the face of helplessness. And more importantly, it is also a low-key celebration of the liberating power of cinema.