Saturday, June 28, 2014

Lucia: I could be dreaming...

Official site: you can rent the film here

If you had such a dream

Would you get up and do the things you believed in?

If you had such a dream

Would you get up and do those things?

-- “I Could Be Dreaming,” Belle & Sebastian

The boundary between reality and dream isn’t as solid as we like to pretend. I’m as rationally-minded as anyone this side of the Neo-Atheist Bro Crew but it’s hard not to be unnerved when you wake up from a nap--as I once did--immobile, with an evil crone hunched in the corner of the room. Thankfully, I’d read enough about sleep paralysis and hallucinations to know what was happening to me but the knowledge that it wasn’t “real” didn’t make it less real, to me, right then.

The lived, human experience of reality is more complicated than what is usually depicted in films. Filmmakers either don’t trust us to navigate the boundaries on our own or perhaps they themselves are too steeped in a dull, literal-minded view of cinema, feeling the need to baby us with some character or other explaining how, “It was just a dream!”

I blame the Wizard of Oz for setting the template. I never liked the movie for erasing all the ambiguity of the novel and 75 years later, the trope of going from sepia-toned “reality” to a candy-colored “dream-world” still haunts us. In the novel, Dorothy actually does travel to Oz, in “reality.” Why does it have to be a dream for film viewers to understand? This hard boundary appears in the newer Bollywood films all the time. Songs are no longer woven into the narrative but are either prosaically set in some boring club or jerking us into a literal dream world, if they bother with songs at all, is. Since lipsynced music isn’t “realistic,” though booty shorted heroines romping through Bombay waiting to fall for some asshole producers asshole son apparently are.

All of this is why I’m generally wary of films dealing with altered mindstates or altered realities. For every film like A or Black Swan, there are ten dreary, dull Inceptions. Either it’s all a dream or the nightmare is reality or the crazy person is actually the only sane person and it’s all so boxed up and much less interesting than the real world outside where dreams can bleed into our waking moments and transcendental states can pop out from nowhere, making a walk home from work take a turn for the euphoric.

Filmmaker Pawan Kumar had already proven he had a nuanced view of “reality” in his script for the wonderful Manasaare, in which the hero finds himself swept up into a mental institution, unable to convince anybody that he’s sane. And, so, I had absolutely no qualms sitting down to enjoy Lucia.

Lucia weaves together three stories, the first is a straight-ahead detective story, in which a big shot (Sanjay) gets called in to figure out what happened to put a man into a coma. He’s led to a supply chain of a drug called “Lucia,” that induces lucid dreaming. Parallel to Sanjay’s detective story, we’re introduced to Nikki (the phenomenal Sathish Neenasam), an average kind of guy who works as an usher at an old-fashioned single screen “talkies.” Nikki doesn’t have much in the way of material goods but he has friends, family, and, most importantly, his dreams. Because, you see, Nikki takes “Lucia” in order to sleep. And Nikki’s lucid dreams, in which he is a top film hero, form the third pillar of the film.

Characters flow back and forth between the two Nikkis’ stories. They both fall in love with a pretty, independent-minded girl (Shruthi Hariharan) and have a father-figure of sorts in Achyuth Kumar. But Nikki the usher connects with them in a way that impossible for Nikki the hero, who treats everybody around him with disdain. The more Nikki the hero gets what he wants, the less satisfied he seems to be. The hero’s life begins to feel less like a lucid dream and more like a nightmare in which he’s dreaming of being an usher.

Each story is shot with a different film style. The detective gets the jumpy realism of something like 24, with cuts to security camera footage. The usher gets a vivid, slice-of-life style and the usher’s dream world of the hero is depicted in the flat, dull sepia tones of Dorothy’s Kansas.

The hero’s black and white life feels like an odd choice at first, especially for those of us used to the Oz trope, but it slowly begins to make sense. As Nikki the hero goes through the motions of half-heartedly miming songs or sexually harassing his heroines or insulting his inferiors on set, the “reality” of the hero can never match up to the image we see on screen. Nikki the usher can’t know that the heroes he dreams of on screen are actually just people, real people, people with terrible personalities after years of having their every whim indulged. So Nikki dreams and dreams and while the usher’s life gets better, the hero’s life gets shittier.

Can the usher turn off his dreams? Can the hero dream himself out of existence?

Sathish Neenasam does an amazing job as both Nikkis. There is a huge gap between the kind of guy who wanders out in the middle of the night with his lungi at half mast and gets harassed by the cops for peeing against a wall and an urban, mall-shopping, fancy sunglasses wearing hero. Yet Sathish deftly weaves between them both, completely switching up body language, tone of voice, facial expressions. The two Nikkis are the same man but they’re not. Nikki the usher has a kindness behind his eyes that’s missing from Nikki the hero, when he can even be bothered to take off his goggles.

Without giving too much away, more than just a clever and entertaining film, I thought Lucia was a nice commentary on our celebrity obsession, which has just exploded in this new media age. We glamorize and dehumanize. We beat ourselves up for not looking like heroes and heroines; we throw away relationships because they aren’t the fairy tale romance shown on screen; we eagerly eat up tabloid stories of all the public drunkeness and fights and meltdowns and “link-ups” without a scrap of empathy for the people involved. I say we because I’m as guilty as anybody else, it’s hard not to be in this culture.

Nikki, the hero, is a douchebag but didn’t we make him that way? He deliberately isolates himself with wealth and power. There’s one excellent gag early on where Nikki, sitting under an umbrella, calls over the actor playing the rowdy he’s fighting. He sends his assistant for a second chair and then, when the chair arrives, puts his feet on it. Just to show this other actor who has the upper hand. By the end you really understand why he wants to escape from our dreams of him. His douchebag behavior is a protective measure, to keep other people from taking the scraps of himself left after a long day in front of the cameras.

There were a few other interesting threads woven into the narrative. A bitterness at the high status of English, a disdain for commercial multiplex type films that go in one ear and out the other, and a frustration with the way audiences swallow the image without thinking critically about them. And perhaps I flatter myself but Nikki the usher’s lovely friendship with three foreign girls could be read as a small shout out to the handful of us foreign lady bloggers who write with such love and devotion for all the odd corners Indian films. Even if it wasn’t, it was nice to see friendship between an Indian man and foreign women that was one of equals and based on common interests instead of romance. (We’re not all over-sexed bikini girls, you know!)

Lucia, much like Pizza, is clever, entertaining, and still has some real emotional depth to it. I laughed and cried (more than once) and overall just really, really enjoyed the film and I suspect you will, too.

(And on a final note, how condescending is this line from the wikipedia entry:

The movie received positive reviews from critics. Ibnlive praised the film, giving it 2.5 stars out of 5 and said With 'Lucia', Indian regional films have touched a milestone.

Seriously? Ugh. What milestone should “regional films” be reaching for? The blandness of The Lunchbox? You can shove your 2.5 stars back where you pulled them from, IBNlive. Needless to say, DO NOT READ THE WIKI SYNOPSIS if you don't want all the spoilers I so carefully wrote around for you.)


bharathp said...

This is such a nice review ! One of the best I have read for Lucia. Thanks for recognizing kannada movies :)

odadune said...

I'd heard good things about this one elsewhere, so between that and this review it is probably going on the myindiashopping list.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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