CRD, the recently released film directed by Kranti Kanadé, starts right off the bat with auditions for the Purushottam Karandak, the inter-collegiate one-act play competition that is so essential to Pune’s cultural calendar. It is flush each year with a wave of new talent, even as freshly minted youth icons consolidate their demigod status in a world of fickle adulation and instant pay-offs. It’s only in its second half that the film touches fever pitch, and we find ourselves right in the middle of the competition’s frenetic heave-ho. Purushottam’s high-stakes propulsive power is clearly visible in a wonderfully mounted montage full of inside references, not entirely inaccessible to those who may have only casually flirted with stage culture.

We catch fleeting glimpses of actual plays like Shivraj Waichal’s Ullagaddi, which swept the board in 2013. Taking place entirely on a tree on which two characters take refuge from a flood, the play provides us the coup d’œil that gives a measure of the undeniable proficiency of works presented at Purushottam even though the film’s strong undercurrent of satire attempts to send up some of the prevailing conventions that may feed this frenzy. Then there is Suraj Parasnis’ Patient and, in an inspired bit of cameo casting, local auteur Mohit Takalkar, in self-mocking mode, walks away with the moment of the film, albeit by blurting out a cryptic reference to Emir Kusturica, entirely in keeping with the film’s frequent if facile name-dropping.

Play within a film

The writing collaborators on the film, Kanadé and Dharmakirti Sumant, attempt to insert parody into the proceedings with “the plays within the film.” The rival directors offering up their fare are Mayank (Vinay Sharma) and Chetan (Saurabh Saraswat), whose full name provides the film its Delphic acronym (and perhaps distances it from the short film with a similar premise, Chetan Deshmukh, that Kanadé had collaborated on). Sharma is cast in the mold of the archetypal belligerent director who is mounting an inauthentic Indo-Pakistani parable called Purusharth, which follows the unwritten blueprint that ensures a rich haul at Purushottam. He is expedient enough to milk the play’s jingoistic moments, by streaming in the national anthem during a show, ostensibly to appeal to the nationalism so easily ingrained in the unthinking millennials who unblinkingly stand (although, thankfully, no one felt compelled to similarly do so during the film’s screening in Mumbai).

Chetan, on his part, is no less politic in his search for an “award-winning” play, having walked off Mayank’s “fascist enterprise.” In one of the film’s several meta moments, the play he stages at the preliminaries is Sumant’s own Logging Out, a paean to the digital-era loneliness that was staged at Purushottam in 2011, but Chetan soon owns up to his “plagiarism.” His entry in the last round of competitions is a standard issue dance piece, but in this universe of contrivances, its talented young performer Abhay Mahajan elevates it to all but fine art with his flax-haired parleying with a Western classical score (the film’s soundscape is particularly gratifying).

In rebellion mode

What is surprising is that the film seems to be ensconced in a time warp of its own making. Perhaps, it is the colonial-era ramparts of Fergusson college where it is set, or the formal mien of the characters (particularly when conversing in English), or even its preoccupation with very preliminary notions of the primacy of human instinct, or how the sexual impulse is sacrosanct. All of this reinforces the idea that even cinema that is self-professedly forward thinking, seems to be always playing catch-up with real-world mindsets. That is, even as it serves up the lives of the already proselytized for the viewing pleasure (or even edification) of those who have presumably not yet been converted. CRD carries this veneer of smug superiority in almost every frame. Mayank’s rehearsal floor, for instance, is a gendered turf on which women, like cultural secretary Persis (Mrinmayee Godbole), participate in their own debasement. On the floors, he presses Persis’ breasts in an invocation of the dated idea that a female body is the receptacle of centuries of inhibition, that only men can liberate them from. Later, in an act of belated rebellion, she hands him a sanitary napkin saturated with period blood. Although Kanadé does ultimately underline that almost everything about Mayank is humbug, Sharma’s magnetic appeal gives him the allure of an anti-hero whose idealism or commitment to the creative impulse is above reproach. In this, the film strikes a regressive note.

His competitor, Chetan, trying to rebel against an intransigent system, appears to inherit many of the same traits, his superficially modern outlook lacquered with a small-world insularity that places him on a slippery slope of his own. Saraswat chips in an impressive debut performance, but his character’s personalities shift with each scene, and Chetan’s glibness cannot mask a desolation of character, despite the occasional nugget of profundity he comes up with. In many ways, unwittingly or otherwise, he is an insufferable symptom of our times.

Navel-gazing exercise

It is left to a radiant and sphinx-like Godbole to usher in the gravitas that the film lacks. Despite being slowly stifled in a patriarchal setup, she holds on to a feistiness of spirit that is refreshingly uncluttered. The film is at its most inventive (but perhaps not as much for theatre aficionados) during Chetan’s creepy/charming wooing of Persis, and in keeping with the backdrop of backstage intrigue, CRD stylistically uses theatre grammar like the reading out of stage instructions, or the metaphorical playing out of rehearsal exercises, and when, in one scene, Chetan imagines Persis to be the prostitute he’s hooked up with — the encounter is lyrically shot as if it were a lovemaking set-piece on stage. Hanging over Persis like the sword of Damocles is the cautionary tale of an older woman, Veena (Geetika Tyagi), whose spirit seems to have been impaired by another man with a halo complex (one of countless precursors to Chetan). But, the two women never once exchange glances. Yet, we have much to hope for in Persis’ denouement, and perhaps she will yet make a good man, as clichés go, of the titular character who’s so indistinguishable from the film.

It must be said that CRD has much going for it, but its inordinate navel-gazing grounds it irretrievably. Notwithstanding a minefield of guilty pleasures, it is a film that appears to revel in its parochialism in a way that is not warranted by its exposé-style approach towards the real-life cultural skirmishes that provide it its raison d’être.

This post originally appeared in The Hindu on October 23, 2017, and has been reposted with permission.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.