The screen debut “Cat Sticks” by the Indian filmmaker Ronny Sen challenges our prejudice about Indian cinema right from the start – it is a lean art house drama about junkies told as a mosaic composed of several stories connected thematically, while not necessarily narratively, happening over the course of one rainy night in Kolkata. The film premiered as the only Indian feature at Slamdance in its official narrative feature competition and the potential for further festival exposure is high.
Right from the start, the viewer is aware that “Cat Sticks” is something else, opening with simple credits sequence of white letters on black background set against some grungy drone played on electric guitar. The stories follow several drug addicts, or groups of them, looking for the high of halogen, a special synthetic brand of heroin that created havoc in India in the 90s and the early 2Ks. This particular collection of stories can be set any time during or even after that period and its protagonists all live on the fringes of society, hustling and bustling to live to another day or looking for the pain to end (or to stop just temporarily) rather than seeking redemption. Needless to say, their chances are slim and look even slimmer hour after hour.
In Sen’s film, it is less about the plot or plots and more about the context of Indian society where the lowest ranks are left to fend for themselves with little to no help from the state, family and friends. What seemed like temporary escape, soon turns to be a downward spiral of addiction, pain, crime and violence. The filmmaker is not shy to show us the brutality of life like that, using the striking images of extreme poverty, street life and abandoned places, but he also manages to find beauty in it, portraying it in poetic, semi-surreal fashion. Some visuals, like the plane wreck in the middle of the field used by junkies as some sort of safe house, the misfortune of a transgender prostitute who was denied the money for a fix, the fight between the father and the son in a decrepit bathroom of their house, or the extended homoerotic sequence of two stripped down addicts looking for each other’s veins for fix, would leave the lasting impression.
In the terms of style, Sen is staying loyal to his fine-arts photography backgrounds, beautifully composing the frames and profiting from chiaroscuro contrasts in stark black and white captured through the lens of Sherya Dev Dube. Parallels might be drawn to the social realist traditions of Bengali cinema from the 60s, but also to American counter-culture movies of the 70s and more radical specimens of indie cinema from the early-to-mid 90s.
With a strong, yet fluid script Sen co-wrote with Soumyak Kanti DeBiswas and a cast perfectly blending both professionals and screen debutants, “Cat Skills” is an inspired and assure debut, which might qualify it for an essential viewing on this year’s festival circuit.