Cat Sticks. 2019. Directed by Ronny Sen. Screenplay by Sen & Soumyak Kanti DeBiswas.
Starring Tanmay Dhanania, Joyraj Bhattacharya, Sumeet Thakur, Rahul Dutta, Saurabh Saraswat, Kalpan Mitra, Soumyajit Majumdar, Sreejita Mitra, Sounak Kundu, & Raja Chakravorty.
Not Rated. 94 minutes.
The only Indian film on the Slamdance Film Festival schedule, Cat Sticks, is a stunning and emotional directorial debut from photographer Ronny Sen. He and co-writer Soumyak Kanti DeBiswas have channelled not only a personal vision of drug addiction in Kolkata (a.k.a Calcutta), they’ve also used their screenplay to address wider national concerns, from the lack of care for drug addicts – specifically DeBiswas and Sen draw on the rise of a synthetic heroin called Halogen that wreaked havoc on Kolkata’s most vulnerable during the 1990s and into the early 2000s – to the depths those who are socioeconomically crippled are forced to plunge in order to survive.
Although the subject matter of Sen’s film is fascinating, its chiaroscuro visuals are equally as engaging and a character all on their own. They build the stark realism that exists in the lives of addicts, as well as create a semi-surreal atmosphere that leaves the viewer feeling like they’re in another world with those riding the brown sugar high.
Kolkata’s nicknamed the City of Joy, which feels diametrically opposed to the lives of the people we meet through the story. The city’s known as India’s cultural capital, making the film’s themes feel even more important, as addicts are simply another demographic – one of the most at risk communities – who’ve fallen prey to the human destruction in capitalism’s continuing wake. Sen’s film is a collision of the highs and lows of society, using the national landscape as backdrop for these personal yet simultaneously universal tales of devastation.
“We are Robin Hoods, motherfucker.”
Aside from the never ending downpour that goes on to surround nearly every scene, one of the initial images in Cat Sticks is a derelict plane – perfectly emblazoned with the name KING – in the middle of a field. Inside, several addicts smoke brown sugar, plotting out their hopes and dreams, and discussing the failures of their lives. The plane itself, and the addicts inside, are an image of the nation’s waste surrounding those of the lowest class, who go without help and are forced to feed off what little scraps they manage to salvage from the discarded waste of their government.
Another scene later depicts a man at home smoking brown sugar and sitting across from his son at the dinner table. Above them is a picture of the Taj Mahal, bigger than the family photo on the wall next to it. This juxtaposition suggests a hierarchy in India. The Taj Mahal’s been protected during wartime, specific emissions standards are in place surrounding it separate from the rest of the country. It’s a monument to the bourgeois class— a massive monument to a single person framed as a testament of love when it’s a whopping symbol of wealth-based inequality, constructed in the 17th century for 32-million rupees. It’s a tomb dressed up as fancy architecture, whereas addicts, and others in the low socioeconomic classes, find the streets become their ultimate tomb.
Sen, in a recent interview, said artists can’t afford to not take stands anymore. He uses perfect language to couple with his film: “We cannot be mere consumers anymore.” He never gets into an in-depth probing of India’s social failures, rather he uses the imagery and the plight of his characters to do his talking. The characters themselves encounter situations in which they exploit others to get what they need/want, and other addicts are forced to exploit themselves— capitalism in its purest essence, when people become their own exploiters.
Perhaps the nastiest capitalist image of the film comes near the end, when a man stumbles out of the darkness bleeding from various parts of his body. He was recently castrated, having been promised 1,500 rupees and not even receiving half. This is a reference to a medieval part of history smack dab in modern India. Starting in 1976, during what’s historically known as “the Emergency,” India’s government enacted a ‘family planning’ policy to try reducing the nation’s out of control population growth. This involved people being offered money to be voluntarily sterilised. In a single year, the country sterilised 6.2-million men— a staggering number 15x that of the numbers sterilised in Nazi Germany. This bleeding man wandering from the dark is a tragic reminder of the corporeal capitalism to which the lower classes are subjected, forced to literally hack off body parts in order to survive another day.
“If they build a shopping mall here, then where will people smoke?”
Two scenes from Cat Sticks sit in contrast well concerning the balance of life and death with which street addicts often live. In the first scene, two addicts prepare to shoot up, and they search for an appropriate vein. Their search becomes a beautiful ballet dance between the two men. They strip naked, running hands over one another’s body, coming face to face with each other’s penises and all the body’s intimate areas, erasing any modesty, as if they’re a pair of fearless ballet dancers together in-sync onstage. The scene comes out of nowhere, illustrating the way addicts can slip between the real and surreal in their daily lives. But it also shows that, despite the general brutality, there’s beauty in even the life of an addict struggling to exist.
Opposing this dance’s elegance is the image of a raven perched atop an addict’s head. The man doesn’t move, even when another addict comes up and literally takes the drugs right out of his hands. The raven’s claimed him: an image of Death swooping down out of the natural world into modernity’s labyrinth to take a victim. In this light, the other man acts like he’s stealing the Grim Reaper’s scythe, carrying the cycle on and perpetuating the deadly addiction gripping Kolkata’s addict community.
Cat Sticks is a bold, confident debut. Sen’s low-key photography lends gravitas to the existence of these addicts usually treated as blights on society’s face. It’s also a perfect visual embodiment of the wildly divergent space between the highs and lows of Indian society— vibrant whites versus dark, rich shadows echoes the dichotomous experiences of upper versus lower class, like that gaping distance between the Taj Mahal’s luxury and the addict father getting high while his son eats supper.
Sen is a filmmaker to watch. Hopefully he continues to offer his unique vision of Indian film to the world. There are those who foolishly question why directors choose to make black-and-white films in a contemporary world of colour, then there are the rest of us who appreciate the way colour choices can perfectly reflect a story’s thematic concerns. This is a masterpiece. Films like Cat Sticks and Tumbbad are helping shatter the typical mould, entering Indian cinema into an exciting new phase that’s beginning to showcase its country’s artists for something other than solely the variety of musicals Bollywood pumps out year after year.