There is nothing subtle about violence. It is bloody and messy and meant to be disturbing. Oftentimes in Shujaat Saudagar’s The Underbug, that premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival and bagged the Breakouts Feature Grand Jury Prize, the characters speak about murder and the ongoing tyranny against the Indian Muslim populace. The psychological thriller also takes place over the course of one day, on the eve of Indian Independence Day to be particular, where the radio often focuses on a live broadcast where citizens across the country are asked about their own understanding of freedom. Each mechanism the film offers tends to eschew towards the dark chapter of communal violence that is spreading across the country like an epidemic. There’s no escape from that dread.
It is this restlessness and paranoia that settles in quickly with the opening scenes of The Underbug. A man cautiously makes his way towards a deserted house enveloped by a thick forest cover. His shirt is soaked in blood. As the camera slowly inches closer, the man (played by Hussain Dalal) begins to realise that the house is completely abandoned. There are blood stains in the corridor, and the bedroom is in a mess. After a while, when an injured stranger (Ali Fazal) is introduced, Dalal’s character tries to force him away- and quickly realizes that it is his house instead. The Underbug then proceeds to unravel as a psychological drama, as the two men reveal themselves to be rioters, and try to coax from each other whether they are Hindu or Muslim. Outside, owing to the communal riots, Muslims are being slaughtered, entire families killed at once. Meanwhile, the men inside are also increasingly haunted by the sound of anklets, and are terrified whether there is someone else in the house who is spying on them.
The horror in The Underbug is essentially driven from the political subtext. The genre elements- dark interiors, empty house, blood splattered on the floor are additions that amplify the fear to a certain degree. The bleakness of The Underbug takes time to settle in, but once it does, in the extended dinner table sequence where both the characters share lamb biryani together, it becomes increasingly tense. Dalal, who co-wrote the screenplay with brother Abbas Dalal and Saudagar, constructs the interplay of words to aim at the socio-cultural markers of meat-eating. One eats it with raita (mix of curd and spices) while the other prefers pickles. At the end, who are the scapegoats?
Even as the narrative is bowed down slightly in the second half, The Underbug is constantly elevated by its technical brilliance, which inject the film with a startling sense of immediacy. DoP Tassadaq Hussain aims at a mix of close-ups and hand-held camera movements to imbue the desperation and anxiety- and it works, aided tremendously by the editing of Tushar Parekh. Even the spare prediction design by Nitin Gaikwad is never over-the-top to accentuate the horror elements with gimmicky details. It builds the bleak, gloomy mood of The Underbug with an undercurrent of pathos. Ultimately, the film works because of the presence of Dalal and Fazal, both of whom give sincere, committed performances that could have easily become hysterical caricatures. Hussain Dalal brings in dollops of anguish to the role, and paints a man who is at odds with himself. Ali Fazal, on the other hand, gives a truly haunting turn, deftly using his physicality to reveal the inherent loss of control as the film progresses towards that eerie final revelation.
Even as the denouement does get a little predictable by the end, Saudagar has a firm hold over the proceedings to never give in to melodramatic sequences. The veritable sincerity and immediacy with which The Underbug tears at its provocation is praiseworthy, even as the film constantly calls the attention to these choices of the director and his metaphors. The more one persists to accustom to the austere self-awareness of The Underbug, the more it skips ahead. It is meant to shake you, and it succeeds.
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(With Inputs from hindustantimes)