Calcutta 2000. Communist ideologues. Rain-drenched desolate alleyways. A dilapidated hut. A passionate father. Flame and smoke emanating from the crooked end of a similarly drenched wax stick. Individual images conjure up a story of four downtrodden groups of addicts. The city that we get to witness in this feature film does not belong to the quintessential Bangali Bhodrolok, but of one that belongs to junkies, patakhors, as derogatorily called in Bengali, and the seamy underbelly of the society. Winner of the Jury’s Honorable Mention Award at the Slamdance Film Festival, this 90 minute-long film is visually stunning and artfully crafted with multiple narratives that collide to cast a spell on the viewers.
The Brown Magic
It all starts with three blokes in an abandoned Kingfisher Jet in a long stretch of an almost inaccessible ungrazed stubble field trying to get their fix for the night and segues into multiple arcs, all falling prey to the allure of a brown powdered substance on the streets of Calcutta, long before it was coated in blue and white Argentinian colours.
This powdered substance, we speak of, is an adulterated form of heroin cheaply available with close to 80 per cent of it being formed by chalk, zinc oxide, and strychnine essentially resulting in the compound – brown sugar. You are either high or in withdrawal. There is no hanging emotion. There is only the surreal. Smoking or intaking this substance in its immaculate form can be an arduous process. “Brown sugar is very ritualistic. It is not easy. You cannot put a powder on a table and sniff it. You have to be in a space where there is no wind,” says director Ronny Sen.
Wooden match sticks don’t gel well with the process, for they have an irregular flame. One cannot make do with a lighter either, for the heat generated is too harsh and can melt the foil. You need to have a certain brand called “Cat Sticks” which has a wax exterior and provides for a smooth uniform flame. It is delicate. It is fine art.
Addiction is Universal
Enveloped in cinematic black and white imagery, one of the arcs of the film erupts into a ballet sequence of two naked lanky men, in search of a vein. There was nothing sleazy or sordid between Byang (Tanmay Dhanania) and Potol (Sounk Kundu) when they tried injecting the drug intravenously. It was real because they were moulding and flexing their bodies in different shapes for the veins to pop out and Shreya Dev Dube, the director of photography, captured that exquisitely. It felt like they were dancing to the mellifluous rhythms created by Oliver Weeks.
There was another arc following the poignant story of a man named Biplab (Raja Chakravorty) who would nonchalantly smoke by the day despite the presence of his son and post sundown, dress like a woman and get inhumanly exploited by a truck driver who promised two hundred rupees. Cat Sticks will not morally police you. There has already been a wide gamut of films depicting addiction from the perspective of law enforcement officials. This, however, is more personal. More visceral. It simply lends you a peek into a world that is unknown to the guileless eye. It weaves four worlds that coexisted with a common thread of addiction running through them and weaving each arc with a distinct charm-induced anguish . It is a film about all the untamed creatures of the night who succumb to substance abuse and everything else that revolves around it.
Sen reflects, “Modernity has always understood drug addiction from the monologue of psychiatry and this film wants to challenge that. This film wants to challenge this idea that a person uses for a certain desire and no psychiatric medicine in the world can lift that desire and everyone deserves to live. Addiction is universal.” If there is a film that you want to watch this quarantine, let Ronny Sen’s monochromatic feature – Cat Sticks, be the one. Even more so now that it is easily available on MUBI India, for you to stream.
About the author: Aindrila Das believes that existential crisis is overrated and existentialism is real but keeps dilly dallying between Camus and Sartre. She also once in a while gorges on art that has bildungsroman as the genre. From Francois Truffaut movies to Normal People, she has consumed everything.