K (Rajat Kapoor) is at a night club — drinking, brooding, staring at a woman on the dance floor. He’s a “filmmaker”, the sort who lives within double quotes because he is, you know, hatke from all else. He wears dark glasses always, and is known by just one letter of the English alphabet. Except for the fact that he has made 20 films, K is like Q, not the letter silly, but the New York-based, festival circulating director Q in whose films and fantasies there’s always a sweating maid. Here too he has a film and here too there’s a maid. And she’s sweating.
At the nightclub the young girl approaches K in a let’s fast-forward to bedroom way. He’s interested, but then a name she mentions sends him back to his past and from there to another, and another…
X: Past is Present is the story of one man, 11 women, told by 11 writer-directors of whom two are women. X is an experiment, or an indulgence, depending on how you see it. The last such experiment, The Last Act (2012), spearheaded by Anurag Kashyap, was about picking 12 best directors from 600 entries. This one seems to have taken the short cut of calling friends and familiars on board.
Through short sequences build around 11 relationships with 11 women, one leading to the next, the man and his past are revealed.
X has stories by nine men and only two women and that fact alone serves it up as an interesting case study of how the same characters are interpreted and treated by men and women. It’s an Indian buffet of gender study with only one dessert, and that’s courtesy Nalan Kumarasamy. On his story and segment, the life and exploits of K pivot. It’s his segment that explains why this man, K, has been in a perpetual identity crisis, and lends some sense to the many long spells of nonsense we suffer in between.
The film is narrated through K’s perspective and eyes, though he is often an onlooker in his own life. Thus we must assume, for many reasons including that his films don’t do well commercially but are screened at festivals, that K is a great filmmaker. Also because K is being played very stutteringly by Rajat Kapoor.
K’s story is quite simply this: human beings are in general a sum of their past, but K is a creation, a product of his sexual experiences. Acting out that residual anger and repressions from the hurts and assaults that could not be stopped/avoided defines his relationship with himself and the world, which mostly translates as punishment for the women in his life.
First-year psychology students would stand up and clap. I finished my graduation in 1991, and so did most of the men and women who have written and directed the segments of X.
Yet, barring Kumarasamy’s segment, all others seem to have emerged from the recesses of minds that are still adolescent, carrying insecurities about their worth, low self-esteem and some unrealised fantasies.
K’s gaze, as imagined and conceived by most of the men and women, reduces women to truncated parts — of body, identities, needs. Though at times the women and the love making scenes are artily shot, there’s no mistaking the young boy gaze.
The women in X get very little by way of “identity”. A doctor is reduced to her lips and that she may be a “possibility”.
In fact, all women put together amount to this: women don’t “get” Rushdie, though they pretend to; when women say no to sleeping with a man, they can be flattered or insulted into saying yes; all women are insecure and their sense of security and identity begins and ends with a man and his child; insecurity about their man makes women neurotic, and that all women want to straddle, to varying degrees, these two roles — Paro-Chandramukhi, mother-whore, lover-nurturer.
As if all this was not incredibly reductive and sexist, the only power the film grants women is in Rajshree Ojha’s segment and that’s abortion — denying a man his progeny. Apparently, that’s the female Brahmastra, the biggest revenge tool.
If the hall has a puke bag, I would have filled it up. Watching most of X felt like being dragged through a bad drug trip of some sad hostel boys.
X‘s entire construct, the world it creates and the premise of the film seem to be dedicated to the service of reassuring man. That many, many women chase after the same man, the nation’s male to female sex ratio be damned, is not enough. The whole world, it seems, must dedicate itself to reassuring man of his sexual prowess. If not that, then at least his mommy must hug him often and say, “I’m sorry, I should have been there to protect you. You are my man.”
Archimedes of Syracuse said, “Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the earth.” These men, and the two women writer-directors, seem to be saying, give men constant reassurance about their sexual power and they’ll perhaps find the strength to stop staring at it and get up to something useful.
X was on to something interesting: That every mistake, every twist and turn in K’s life, every lesson, every dream and demon is linked to that first act of sexual violence — that can be, and is often the case. Like it was in one of the segments of Onir’s I Am (2010). Like Onir’s film, this one too could have been an interesting exploration of self-loathing, of the need to act out against women, of being scared of commitment, of disconnecting sex with emotions, of lying, to others and himself and, perhaps, even homophobia and homoerotic fantasies.
But the film never quite explores K’s addiction to sex and the need to be always playing the game of love. It just ends up showing us a repetition of the same thing over and over again, as if the men were scared of going even a little further, of lifting another veil.
What a shame that X is not half as honest and true to its story as Onir’s I Amwas. The film’s sex scenes are not bad. And at times it gets and conveys the claustrophobia of living in the past, but mostly the film is too incoherent, and is so shameless that it uses that as a sort of statement of style.
Worse, every few minutes it slips into such incredible banality that it became a struggle for me to get a fix on what ruined this film: lack of talent or a propensity for pretension?
The worst segments, sadly, are the ones by the film critics-turned-directors — which, perhaps, clinches the argument that those who can criticise well need not necessarily make great films.
What it does tear open is the question of how ethical it is for film reviewers, who are in the business of commenting on other people’s films, have the power to influence opinion about films, to occasionally cross over to the other side.
There is no ban on film reviewers/critics becoming filmmakers. But let us not pretend for a second that to get these assignments their clout, access as film critics was not in play.
Often there are no rules about what’s okay and what’s not. Often it is a personal standard of ethic that we all set for ourselves. These men, sadly, set them low.