“Didn’t we finish with it?” asked Mr Choudhury a little irritated.
He was addressing the professor, who then turned in his seat and looked around for help, “I feel we have not done justice to it.” He met the eyes of the five other people in the room, all of them film directors. He could read nothing from their expressions. But he suspected they thought him to be shut up in his ivory tower, being a mere professor in the Film Study Centre. Together they had shortlisted several short films for this year’s film festival. The difficult task of awarding the best lay ahead.
The senior director spoke, “I think as a work of art it is exemplary, but…”
“Exactly my gripe,” continued Mr Choudhury, “Aesthetics is not enough. It needs a clear message. A film with no dialogue leaves too much to interpretation…” he trailed off, as though embarrassed. Another director smiled, “Mr Choudhury, you are uncomfortable discussing it, and our professor here is uncomfortable not discussing it. It sounds to me, if nothing else, at least this film has left us suspended..., shall we say, somewhere between art and life?”
The professor suggested, “Can we watch it again? Ten minutes isn’t a lot of time.”
“Alright,” grumbled a voice. “Yes,” came an enthusiastic reply and the rest assented quietly. The room was darkened and a beam of light splashed on the screen.
A boy, dirtily clothed, obviously from the underclass, peeps into a hall full of people. A photography exhibition is going on. A low hum of voices broken with happy exclamations is the background audio track. None of the words are distinct. Well-dressed people enter the hall passing by the boy who clings to the shadows. People buy prints and get them autographed by the photographer. A press reporter with a large camera hovers by his side while he waves his hands around to embellish his speech.
The boy steps into the room, and pressing himself close to the wall, stares wide-eyed at the photographs – mostly scenes of the city. He slides from frame to frame, and a smile lights his face.
Suddenly the caretaker sees him and orders him out in a loud voice. The hum stops. People turn around to look at him. The smile vanishes from the boy’s face. He is about to go when a picture catches his attention. Hanging on the wall is a likeness of himself, cupping his palms to drink rainwater trickling down a thatched roof. The photographer waves his hand at the audience pointing to the boy and the photo. The reporter signals the boy to pose beside it. We hear the “Click” of his camera. Then the crowd forgets about the boy, the indistinct hum resumes, and he is free to look at the exhibits.
The boy peeps through an aperture created by his locked fingers. When he is satisfied with the composition he says “Click”. All day he is playing at being a cameraman. The sounds are natural street sounds, but subdued. The only distinct one is the “Click” he utters. The boy has an artist’s eye. Sometimes he is bent upside down to capture a fruit-laden branch. Sometimes he is lying on the dusty pavement to create a composition of wheels. Sometimes he has climbed a tree to shoot patterns formed by people crowding the streets. At night he peeps through the holes in the canvas that serves as his roof. He “Clicks” when the car headlights expose hidden forms for a split second. Early in the morning he is roaming the streets with his handmade “camera,” freezing the formations of dust stirred up by the sweeper. There are scenes of children like himself, eating out of coconut shells, sewing plastic bags to make raincoats, repairing discarded sandals.
He stares through the glass window of a camera shop. He is chased away by the salesman. He hangs around the little den of the camera mechanic. The lads loitering around smoking cheap cigarettes imitate his “Click” pointing at a woman’s buttocks, a ricksha-walla’s armpits, a street dog’s scab.
The boy searches for a camera in the electronic dump yard. He has found one that looks intact but is actually dead. Wherever he goes it hangs proudly round his neck. When he sleeps he cuddles it close to his chest. One night other kids steal it and dash it to the ground. It explodes into a hundred pieces. In the morning he asks everyone but nobody has seen the camera. He cries and the others exchange smirks.
While working in the matchbox factory, ever so often he stares out of the window and says “Click,” tilting his head to focus on a swaying branch or a passing bus. Faces of other workers and their nimble fingers get recorded in his imaginary celluloid. The sounds of the factory rise and fall like waves from afar.
He has grown into a young man and is found around tourist sites. He still has no camera. A man dangling a camera round his neck approaches the tourists and gives them instant photographs. Our hero begs him to take him in as partner, but the man dismisses him curtly. Again all the sounds are kept indistinct, except the click of the camera.
He is standing in the Botanical Garden mixing bhel puri. When he has no customer he walks around the place and “Clicks” unusual sights and refreshing moments. Once he sees a man and woman struggling to take their own photo in a clumsy way. He offers to help. They shake their heads thinking he wants to sell them his fare. He gestures “Click”. Then his eyes fall upon his fingers smeared with chili powder and onion juice.
He roams the flea market in search of a cheap camera. He asks the price, counts his money and walks away. Then one day one of the vendors gives him a deal. It is a second-hand digital camera of an outdated brand. He can hardly contain himself. He runs all over town clicking feverishly. We see the pictures he has taken on the camera’s small screen. They are all extraordinary. Then the machine beeps – The CF card is full. A passerby teaches him to delete old photos. But soon the camera warns “Low Battery” and shuts down. He finds the power cord in the pouch. He stares dismally at the plug lying limp on his palm. We see him return to his shack at the end of the day and light a kerosene lamp.
The lights switched on in the auditorium. Mr Choudhury snapped into action, “See what I mean? It has no punch line. Of course from the perspective of technique it is good.”
The professor replied, “Yes, the audio especially. The only distinct sounds are clicks. Sound is put into focus just as a camera focuses an image.”
Another director pointed out, “At least a caption at the end could help, such as ‘Donate your old camera’.”
The professor looked surprised, “But the point of the film wasn’t the camera! Don’t you see? It was about dreams that are impossible to achieve. The man had a fling for a day, but since he has no electricity at home he cannot sustain his passion. Even if he gets a camera for free there is no infrastructure that will help him use the free gift.”
A director argued, “This is not true. Slum dwellers these days watch TV. Where do they get their electricity from? They tap it off an overhead wire. The film could have ended similarly – he hooks his camera charger to a wire.”
Someone laughed, “Yet another Third World trick?”
“No, yet another survival story. Even without this he is not a failure. He has progressed from the match factory to the bhel puri stand.”
“Labourer to entrepreneur. Quite a leap, you say?” smiled the professor.
Mr Choudhury answered him, “I have an idea. Let us send it to the European Film Festival – they like this genre.”
The professor replied, “But the message of the film is not for Westerners, it is for us. I think the filmmaker could have easily ended it the way you suggest – tapping electricity off the grid. But it was deliberately not done that way.”
One of the directors suggested, “Let us talk to the filmmaker and change the ending – to bring in a punch line, as you say. Here is my idea. We show till he gets the camera and is snapping away merrily. Then the last scene will be a photography exhibition in the same hall where the film began, a similar crowd of artsy folk and pressmen. And this time we see the artist is…”
“Good, but is that realistic?” asked the professor.
Mr Choudhury was quick to reply, “This is a film, for heaven’s sake. If you want to see reality you can step out on the street and bump into it.”
“Maybe we do not actually bump into it,” suggested the professor.
Mr Choudhury sighed, “Personally, I am sick of seeing poverty. For Westerners it may still be somewhat of a novelty, but I cannot stomach it anymore. Yes, yes, I am wearing blinkers. But what can I do? Am I the housing board or the electricity department?”
The professor leaned forward, “But you are not powerless. You can certainly make a difference. You can use films of this genre to pass on a message. If this film is not recommended by you, nobody will watch it. But if you add your weight to it, people will take it seriously. The film has no ending because the ending is not written yet. It is for the people to write it; people on both sides of the opportunity spectrum. If the film has made people think and question, its purpose is served. It is easy to entertain, but not so to educate. Here’s your chance.”