Black Bud

India (2021) Dir. Amol Kale

No wonder lust is one of the seven deadly sins, it causes more trouble than good. If being consumed with desire pays off with the odd moment of bliss where nobody gets hurt, that is fine. Unfortunately, more often than not people do end up getting hurt – or worse…

Controversial artist Mehmood Khan (Atul Kulkarni) is found dead shortly after his big comeback work Girl In Gold goes on exhibition to huge acclaim. The girl in the painting is Sanya (Himarsha Venkatsamy), a young woman Khan had pursued for a long time after spotting her in the street, unaware she was the lover of dangerous crime boss Sultan (Amol Kale).

Unhappy with Sultan’s possessive and abusive behaviour, Sanya dreams of running away with Sultan’s driver Das (Praveen Sirohi), a ruthless young man who will do anything for money. One night, Das is sent to pick up a package from Sultan’s colleague Bhave (Vipin Sharma) then drive Sultan and Sanya to a getaway, after which they were due to pose for a portrait painted by Khan. Nothing goes according to plan.

This may be my first taste if Indian arthouse cinema, and like Bollywood’s famed output, it certainly has a unique flavour to it. The debut for writer-director Amol Kale, Black Bud might perhaps be described as Bolly Noir by dint of featuring a femme fatale, a crime boss, and stolen goods. With the narration provided by many of the cast either breaking the forth wall or via abstract pseudo interviews, the thumbprints are there.

Kale also messes about with the visual narrative, wilfully jumping between timelines and perspectives to tell the individual stories of the main players, but seems to find it hard to make them converge successfully in the end. Some characters disappear from the story altogether, adding to the confusion whilst leaving gaping plot holes in their wake, others aren’t sufficiently developed enough, commensurate to their impact on the story.

For instance, the first people “interviewed” following Khan’s death are his wives, sisters Zeenat (Saba Saudagar) and Nafisa (Kiran Thapar), the latter possibly mute (she has no lines). Apparently Khan saved them during a thunderstorm and took them in, eventually marrying them both when a frisson develops between them all, though Nafisa tends to get jealous whenever it is Zeenat’s turn, which is what threesomes are for.

Just to pause for a moment, subtitled Her Story of Orgasms on some posters, this may be a sexually charged film but not a sexually explicit one. Indian film censorship means clothes are kept on and writhing about forbidden; the scenes are stylishly shot to give the impression of something steamy however. And we can assume Khan’s use of paint on the sisters is symbolic too.

Back to the story, and Khan is so libidinous even having two gorgeous wives doesn’t stop him having another woman on the side AND lust after Sanya. The wives sadly disappear shortly after Sanya is introduced, so we have no idea if they knew about Khan’s affairs not to mention how he was murdered in his own house and they didn’t know, yet were able to eulogise during the subsequent police interview!

Like two sides of the same coin, Sanya and Das seem made for each other. Sanya is a young woman running away from her controlling father with dreams of a better life. Working in a call centre, Sanya falls for Sultan’s voice when she randomly calls him, then makes it a regular thing until they exchange numbers. As Sultan’s employee Jamir (Asif Basra) says “In two days, a message becomes a massage”.

Das meanwhile craves only money and will stoop to any low to get it, but his wild ways means it is not only spent quickly but he has to go on the run often too. He ends up becoming Sultan’s driver, and the typical affair between the bored kept woman and the hunky employee develops but despite what Sanya feels, Das is out for himself.

On paper this might sound compelling and in its own way it is, but the execution of the storytelling makes it hard work for the audience to know what they should be focusing on and what they can ignore. Characters like Khan’s wives, Bhave, and Sultan’s son Amir (Saumyy Shivhare) needed to be more prominent, whilst even the principal cast aren’t easy to like, basically screwing up through too much screwing!

It doesn’t help that the conceit of the whole story is not revealed until late in the film and is so incidental its relevance might not be so clear. It is one thing for the penny to drop after a clever build up, but this more a clumsy one that is trying to be clever. You can see what Kale is trying to achieve here yet also see where he painted himself into a corner with the sinuous plotting.

Presentation wise, Kale eschews typical Bollywood excess and goes for something darker and artier. His use of light and shade is effective and he knows how to get the right shot for the mood in question. Colour is still important, be it the ladies’ wardrobe, the kinky use of paint, or to create atmosphere, clashing with the brooding tone and emotionally oppressive set pieces, played out to a foreboding hip-hop soundtrack.

Rating the cast’s performances is a bit difficult. They do a decent job with what they are given but their characters are crying out for greater depth and are hard to relate to or even like. At the risk of sounding shallow, the pulchritude of the female cast is criminal, hence my disappointment at the sisters leaving so early.

Summing up Black Bud, it is certainly a different Bollywood film in terms of presentation and tone, but suffers from trying to be too clever with the elliptical narrative and not using all of its moving parts to their full potential. A bold debut and an interesting watch nonetheless.

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