Most cinematic adaptations fall into one of two categories: they are a satisfying adaptation of the original, or they fall short—either in a big way, or in a film-can-never-be-as-good-as-the-book way, which is still fine. But sometimes a film comes along where the director completely absorbs the writer’s vision, and then proceeds to render it in sharper shades, and using firmer lines, etches boldly on the screen what was withheld on the page. BA Pass, Ajay Bahl’s adaptation of Mohan Sikka’s noir short story ‘The Railway Aunty’, is that rare specimen which belongs to this category.

While the film, which released in theatres last week, has garnered praise for its cinematic (and literary) integrity, critics who have found fault with it all have the same complaint: its lack of a single moment of redemption to offset the relentless focus on the darker side of humanity, the absence of any note of hope to counterbalance its unflinching portrayal of a suffocating urban anomie and the despair it breeds. ‘This is how I see the world’, the director seems to be saying, ‘Look around and see for yourself if I’m right or wrong’.

BA Pass, for the most part, sticks closely to the original. But unlike the short story, its closer embrace of the noir spirit, especially in the latter half of the narrative, transforms it into an allegory about innocence and its exploitation, evocative of William Blake’s iconic poem about love in the age of industrial capitalism, ‘The Clod and the Pebble’.

The central question the film poses, and to which it offers no answer, is two-fold: Why would you take—and take everything you can grasp—from someone who has almost nothing? And what does one make of a society where such extraction/exploitation is not only deemed natural (it is ‘human nature’) but is the very basis of its social and economic order?

(Spoiler alert)

Here’s a very brief plot summary: When teenaged Mukesh’s parents die in an accident, he is sent to his aunt’s place in Delhi’s Paharganj to complete his BA degree. Friendless, and made to feel like a freeloader in a hostile household, he finds sanctuary in the quiet confines of a Christian cemetery where he spends his days learning new moves from a chess book. The cemetery’s caretaker, Johnny, befriends him, and the duo become regular chess partners. One day, when he visits his aunt Sarika’s house to pick up some apples, she seduces him. Subsequently, she pimps him as a gigolo, and from thereon, his life takes a downward spiral that could end only one way—in tragedy.

Right from its opening sequence, which shows Mukesh’s relatives mourning his parents’ death and then confabulating on the economic responsibility (and burden) of having to raise the orphaned children, to Mukesh’s initiation into the sex trade, his aunt turning him out of the house, to his best friend Johnny’s crushing betrayal—it is either pecuniary self-interest or cold self-gratification that dictates the choices of every character. Even the title of the film, BA Pass, is an ironic reference to the perceived material worthlessness of his degree in the marketplace. Such heartless mercantilism and oppressive selfishness are what render the world of this film morally claustrophobic.

Mukesh, alone in his innocence and generosity (even with his meager resources he gifts a wooden chess set to Johnny and silver anklets to Sarika), is easy prey for those already acculturated in this mercenary and cruel—but also familial and respectable—world of Hobbesian brutality. What separates—and thus connects—the sordid and the genteel is the great wall of middle-class hypocrisy. Bahl’s camera cuts through this wall, exposing the corrosive linkages of sleaze, as it captures the action on either side. Not surprisingly, many have found the film uncomfortable, if not disturbing.

There is no redemption in Bahl’s narrative because there is no redemption in the world he depicts. What can possibly redeem a society in which money is unquestionably the arbiter of all value? Only more money. In that case, the only redemptive ending possible would be to show Mukesh becoming rich from prostitution—which would be akin to plunging a knife into the story’s guts.

Any other kind of redemption will have to be an affirmation of humanity or human virtue of some kind. Traditionally, such affirmations have been projected onto a hero—a Salman in Bollywood or a Spiderman in Hollywood—who then becomes a totem embodying all the values banished from matters of real importance in our society. Given that there are no super heroes in the real world, and since the real world is not the ‘reel world’, there is no danger of values such as compassion or love or generosity infiltrating the ethos of pragmatic self-interest that governs the running of the world; or, for that matter, the running of our lives.

Bahl, however, finds another, more subtle, route to redemption. Schematically, we can summarize it thus: The film describes a world in which everybody takes. Mukesh, though he has very little, is the only character who gives. His vulnerability marks him out as quarry in a predatory society which only knows to take. So Mukesh has two choices: either turn a predator himself, or die. He dies. Depressing, you think? Not really, for his very death, in its rejection of such a world, is an affirmation of all that is denied in that world.

In ‘Coming out in Celluloid’, his absorbing essay on the inner creative mechanics of ‘The Railway Aunty’ and BA Pass, Sikka writes, “The film, and the story on which it rests, destroys the farce that our predictable bourgeois existence is a refuge from betrayal and despair… The noir hovers closer than we think." Too close for comfort, he might have added.

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