Specters of Dum Maaro Dum
[this piece deals with many of the spoilers in considerable detail and therefore those who haven't seen the film shouldn't touch it with a bargepole!]
At least on the evidence of Bluffmaster and the current film it is never a bad idea to begin at the end with a Rohan Sippy film. These very deceptive films recoil on themselves by way of their resolutions and in fact Dum Maaro Dum announces this ‘serpentine’ route at the very beginning. It is not however just the fact that the ‘ending’ in each instance gives what has preceded an entirely different twist but also that the subjective position implied in the narrative is also suddenly altered. In Bluffmaster Abhishek’s character is the narrative’s principal subject but also a kind of ‘author’ inasmuch he orchestrates many of the film’s scams. But by the time the film ends we realize that most of the film has actually been a vast ‘meta-scam’ authored by Priyanka’s character. The lead male here has all along been ‘acting’ in something scripted by the woman. At the same time this shift coincides with one that offers a different kind of commentary on the essence of the cinematic and the idea of film illusion. By introducing the not uncommonly used documentary device at the end the film as it were offers ‘meta-commentary’ on itself. Suddenly one is not in the world of the film and with the lead character but actually outside it and occupying Priyanka Chopra’s position though she is also in the film she scripts. But things gets complicated here. She is a bit like the director who acts in her own film but there is also clearly an initial portion in Bluffmaster that is not ‘controlled’ by her signature. This segment then connects with the end credits with the footage of the film’s shoot and so on. The actual ghost here is the director himself who even as he creates all these different modes of fiction (to which following the suggestion of certain theorists the documentary passage must also be added) shifting the subject position in each instance is ultimately really calling the shots (!) at every point. This is also the very meaning of the Hitchockian specter, the mysterious figure who wanders through all the director’s important works, who is and is not the director. Bluffmaster in any case is a superb tale of cinematic illusion but it is also one where the director writes himself into the text of the film in a very surreptitious way not only by ‘upsetting’ expectations of a stable narrative but also by de-stabilzing questions of subjectivity. And though this is not the right point to expand on all of this there are also additional specters in this world which range from a ‘city of silence’ (Bombay) which is the heir to a post-masala universe much as Abhishek himself as a somewhat ghostly operator in this world already seems to be at the ‘end’ of a Bachchan-inflected universe. The insight that Rohan Sippy rightly intuits is that Abhishek Bachchan can be ‘greatest’ by writing a supreme coda to his father’s career much as the director’s own cinema can most faithfully offer a museum of Bombay film memory by concealing it beneath an auteur’s signature. An even wider observation might be risked here which is that global cinema itself today, and for a time now, has in fact been a desperate auteurist struggle to wrestle with the ghosts of past tradition. These ghosts that can be wrestled with fruitfully but that cannot ultimately be laid to rest. For if graves signify that bodies rest within them they also equally indicate that ghosts always escape. Dum Maaro Dum makes tracking down some of these ghosts part of its cinematic project.
Here too one must begin at the end. Notice first of all how this film has more than one climax and in each instance the subject position is once again altered. But here Rohan Sippy goes one step further than Bluffmaster. It is not just about ‘who’ the actual subject of the film is but ‘what’ and the film really operates in the distance between the two and even by the very last frame the question is somewhat indecidable. One thing is for sure however. Specters are introduced in this film very early on. In the very first shot there is a man sprawled on the grass. He is never completely revealed as a body but one sees his hands and so on. Given that a more direct identification is not allowed to the viewer the possibility that this might not just be ‘any’ character is raised right away. The film then begins with a body and the rest of the narrative will quite clearly be the spectral narrative that will lead one back to the body. Of course towards the end there will be a bit of a ‘coda’ to follow this moment. In other words just as with Bluffmaster there is a segment of the film that cannot be included in the otherwise circular narrative, In the earlier film one goes back to the beggining as one learns that everything has been staged but of course there is something here prior to the ‘beginning’ that cannot be part of the the latter. Similarly in Dum Maaro Dum one returns to the body but this is not the end.
Once the film ‘actually’ begins the multiple narratives are introduced in quick succession. Again in fairly obvious ways some gaps are filled in as one proceeds from one narrative to the other and of course the subject position gets altered in rather literal ways. This sort of multiple story-telling with intersections at every point is not the most interesting feature of the film. In fact this too is of the nature of a deception because the film is never simply about such easy gestures. Abhishek’s character cuts across these narratives. As a ghostly presence he is implied throughout but he is also where some of the narratives come to an end. In more theoretical terms Vishnu Kamath’s figure and story slash across the otherwise ordered and complementary narratives. His presence disturbs the functioning of the filmic machine but and the ghosts then come marching in. Note how Kamath becomes the catalyst of this tale. Unlike Bluffmaster Kamath is never the film’s central subject in an obvious sense unless one has picked up the hint very early on with the ‘body’. But he enters the action in a very strange way. He is on the verge of suicide after he can no longer live with the tragedy of his life and at a point where the spectral images that remind him of happier times no longer suffice. In a near-revelatory moment he seems to get a signal from a ‘ghost’ and decides not to take his life. At the very next moment and in rather mysterious fashion a letter that will change his life is delivered to him. There is a mythological undercurrent to all of this. Kamath eventually becomes an Orpheus-like figure (and not only this) who has to get through the Goa underworld to somehow be united ‘spiritually’ with his deceased wife. Once again a woman at the heart of the narrative in a Rohan Sippy film. It is her cue that starts off the investigation and in a way the film. Without it there are just interesting stories. It is only when Kamath gets into the action that a film begins to take shape in the truest sense. This journey through the Goa ‘underworld’ with all its traps and deceptions and danger is what occupies the bulk of the film. The director sets it up splendidly. The first shorter half really offers an extended introduction while in the second longer half the action really begins. The mystery of the kingpin’s identity is always pre-figured in the narrative. There is a body at the beginning and one does not know ‘who’ it belongs to. Eventually the film becomes a quest for the ‘body’ behind a totemic name. A name that offers the entire ‘economy’ of the film’s many ‘signs’. The transcendental that makes possible the functioning of this world. Kamath in turn by trying to deconstruct this ‘name’ and kill this ‘god’ also brings about his own ‘end’ because he too is as dependent on this ‘name’ as anyone else in the film. In fact he has a more precisely symmetrical relationship with it. He has been saved from death because of this ‘name’. It might even be stated that Kamath is a kind of ‘undead’ figure in the film, already something of a ghost, merely on an extended lease in his body. Once more, the film begins with a very ‘material’ body but is throughout pre-occupied with the specter of Michael Barbossa, who in fact is never seen in the film, even by its stunning resolution. It is extraordinarily appropriate then that the quest ultimate leads to a series of graves with different names, all signifying the same, and the solution to the mystery ultimately revolves around not someone but a ‘thing’. This is the most dramatic of the film’s many shifts. It has always been about the ‘thing’ that is the common currency running across all the narratives of this world. It forms the economy of this world and ‘Michael Barbossa’ is simply the ‘name’ that gives ‘body’ to its spectral workings. One could even risk some Marxist spectrality here about commodities and money and so on!
One has perhaps not paid too much attention to the title to be surprised by the twists of the film. Such a ‘naive’ viewer is of course the film’s ideal one. Cinematic illusion is not simply a ‘fake’ that obscures ‘reality’ or that papers over the design of its fiction. Cinematic illusion is so successful precisely because it is a ‘piece’ of reality. Again deception in this fictional sense and otherwise is about adopting that subjective shift that casts a different light on reality in contrast to opposing the genuine ‘article’ to the fake one. The title of the film in any case is ‘Dum Maaro Dum’. This is not just the usual reliance on the title of a song nor is the ‘remix’ here (leaving aside its aesthetic merits or demerits) simply incidental to the film and similarly neither choice here betrays commercial cynicism. The title and the remix in fact get to the heart of the matter. Note how the title song is really the climactic one in the film. A very interesting detail here to begin things. The revelry that will finally uncover the secret actually takes place outside Goa or outside the film’s normal system of signification. There is in other words no way to deconstruct ‘Michael Barbossa’ entirely by remaining within Goa. The flash of insight also occurs to Kamath in the same vein. The song and the film hearken back to Dev Anand’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna, another quest narrative where a man is in search of his long-lost sister who has lost herself in the ‘hippie’ drug-induced world of East-West spirituality. When the final moment of recognition comes toward the end (and since the woman is the central engine of this film’s narrative it depends on her recognition not her brother’s) the woman cannot quite survive it. She can be re-united with her brother only in a spectral way. Rohan Sippy’s film then offers a sequel of sorts, a very interesting ‘redoing’ of the older film’s co-ordinates. Now it is the male-survivor of the trauma (sister, wife) who has to immerse himself into that ‘underworld’ one last time, uncover its secret workings, to finally smash it once and for all. It is now the male protagonist himself who is already half-dead as a survivor and who must soon be completely so to rejoin his spouse. Even as the current film deceives the viewer into thinking it is a ‘noir’ crime thriller it is really about the ‘deathly substance’ at the heart of its world (and Dev Anand’s film). Not in any mundane sense (‘it’s about drugs’!) but in the much more sophisticated fashion of using ‘drugs’ as an economic metaphor that runs through every node of that socio-political system. For Kamath then to uncover the secret of its working, to decipher how this master-sign functions is to destroy the entire fabric of this world. But Vishnu is not quite the ‘destroyer’. He must exit the stage and let someone else finish the job. And so the ‘remix’ of Dum Maaro Dum must occur at the very end, summarizing everything. This dark, orgiastic, hallucinatory moment in a ‘forest’ where the secret lies concealed.
And so one gets to the graves. A whole colonial history is evoked here, Goa being of course a privileged site for this. There are colonial ghosts therefore and to deconstruct these completely is also in a way to lose or at least distort massive aspects of the Indian post-colonial experience. This is why there are so many deaths in the film. Rana Daggubati’s character seems to complete the mission by the end and it all seems satisfactory except that this too is an illusion. What he really finishes is just one episode of a larger economy. But there are undoubtedly other names, other ghosts. The gangster (Lorsa Biscuita) has been ruined by the end but he still lives. The economy of that world can accommodate both him and Joki as they do not disturb its essential coordinates. Kamath does. The latter when he finally learns the secret finds it greatly amusing. He is even more amused when facing his end. This seems odd but of course he has finally realized the truth here. It was never one specter he was chasing down but a whole economy of ghosts. This moment of insight and lucidity (in a world of drug-induced sleep-walkers) is all that could be possibly granted to him. There is a brief but fascinating moment at the end of the ‘remix’ where Deepika Phadukone gives Kamath a rather strange look. Almost as if she is surprised to see him here. Almost as if she has seen a ghost. Someone who does not belong to the scene. Which indeed he does not. Kamath’s charisma can function in this system as long as the name ‘Michael Barbossa’ is kept intact. And if Kamath is yet another descendant of the ‘angry young man’ what might it mean to have such ‘charisma’ in a world no longer operating with that ultimate sign (one I have elsewhere and often called ‘Vijay’)?
Very much could be said about the extraordinary visual economy of the film from all its superb editing decisions (again the ‘metaphorical’ wife that interested one a great deal in BM, the bus sweeping across the scene, all this is far more in evidence here) to its play with sepia tones and its ‘color’ haze in certain significant moments (green and red seem rather important here.. the jungle moment relies on a hallucinnatory green to give it a somewhat otherworldly moment. Elsewhere there is a carnivalesque sequence soaked in red) but for the purposes of the themes laid out here what is most interesting is once again the ‘meta-fiction’ offered through these patterns, even sometimes in mock fashion (the scissor slicing the scene to reveal another one). In truth it would take multiple viewings to really account for this film’s complex visual grammar but it offers overall a series of visual tropes for the de-stabilization also thematized through the film’s narrative and characters and so forth. In other words the visuals are telling the very same story on their own. Here too it is a question of contrasting the material signs of the film (especially its edits) which are always somewhat conspicuous with its quieter and more ‘linear’ constructions. There is a bit of a cinematic ‘moral’ here for the auteurist ‘material’ signature can often be the equivalent of an empty shell signifying very little if not nothing. Which is to say the very stability that is called into question by way of the film’s visual acrobatics is spectrally rendered at the other end. The wager with Dum Maaro Dum however is that there is a double deconstruction in this sense. The ‘innovative’ camerawork is often subverted by the nonetheless linear accumulation of the plot but at the end of course this linearity itself becomes questionable because the subject position has been altered and more than once. To frame it in somewhat cultural terms the visual choices here as well as the multiple story-telling signifies the ‘auteurist’ for contemporary audiences but what they are deceived by here is that the film eventually belies their expectations of a ‘stable’ resolution.
At the very end the Rana Daggubati character almost represents a ‘last man’ of sorts surrounded by ghosts, especially that of Kamath. The job that he completes for the latter superbly unifies the film’s controlling metaphors, at least in the reading suggested here. Kamath is cremated along with the drugs. He cannot outlive the latter. Interestingly this is also a denouement where the central woman (Bipasha Basu) cannot survive much like Kamath though she is ‘key’ to solving the film’s mysteries in certain ways. What happens to women in Rohan Sippy’s films is very strongly linked to his exercises in cinematic deception.
With Bluffmaster and now Dum Maaro Dum Rohan Sippy has opened up one of the most interesting ‘commercial’ sites in contemporary Indian cinema. Abhishek Bachchan as his principal co-voyager on this yet unfolding journey also adds to the question of a post-Bachchan inheritance (where Rohan is a co-author as much as Rathnam is in different ways) and its own very complex (and complicated) economies. One can hardly wait for the next chapter.