A carrom whiz is constantly tested by life in a beautifully textured docudrama that keeps us at an arm’s length.
FEB 7, 2010 – SURYA (SIDDHARTH), THE MINOR-LEAGUE LEADING MAN of Striker – I hesitate to call him “hero,” for he stands resolutely, refreshingly life-sized – is someone with major dreams. He lives in the Mumbai suburb of Malvani (the film is based on true-life events, we’re told), where his best buddy Zaid (Ankur Vikal) smirks about not having stepped beyond Ghatkopar – but Surya envisions a lucrative future in Dubai. Despite his brother’s (Anoop Soni) admonitions that life isn’t wish-fulfillment fantasy, like the kiddie tales in Chandoba, Surya forks over a sizable sum to a dubious travel agent and, unsurprisingly, loses it all. What will make good this loss are his considerable skills in carrom, a game he has a natural flair for but hasn’t visited in six years. How does Surya feel about this, and what is his relation to the game? If he’s rusty after all those years away, we’re not aware of it. If he’s disgruntled about being forced to return to the board, if he thrills at the speedy recovery of an innate talent, if he resents the game that’s forced him to partner with slippery underworld customers, we have no insight.
For that matter, we’re not clued in, either, to the precise nature of his relationships with the people on his periphery (except, of course, Zaid, whom he battles, and bonds with over bottles of booze, in an endlessly comforting cycle; this Hindu and this Muslim are truly bhai-bhai). When Surya’s sister (Vidya Malvade, scrubbed clean of warpaint like everyone else, and embodying an affecting character despite a mere handful of scenes) announces quietly that she plans to get engaged to a man who will whisk her away to another city, he asks simply, “Bangalore jayegi?” He then places his hand on her head, as if in affectionate benediction, and shrugs, “Sahi hai.” There are no tears, and neither does the background score burst into a wail. Elsewhere, when Noorie (Nicolette Bird), the inter-religious object of Surya’s shyly delivered affections, moves away without word or warning, we see him enquiring about her whereabouts, but if this cruelly curtailed romance has scarred him, if his heart has been darkened by shadows of these memories, we really don’t know.
In a traditionally built Hindi (or even Indian) film, these feelings – these hints at a troubled and fully-experienced inner life – would be exposed through song, but Chandan Arora, the director, uses his music for slightly different purposes. When Ajab teri karni maula rings out, we witness a Hindu household in prayer, and we wonder if this seamless integration of different religious sensibilities is what it meant to be in Mumbai at one time, even in the Muslim-dominated Malvani. (The film begins at the cusp of the riots in December 1992, and thereon, travels back to 1977 and 1988.) Striker, therefore, is a traditional story narrated in a decidedly untraditional fashion, and Surya comes off as some sort of Benjamin Button, something of a cipher kept deliberately at a distance as tumultuous events unfurl around him. He strikes the obvious external registers – the rage upon being duped by the travel agent; the howl of anguish at the loss of a loved one – but the smaller shadings that contribute to the interior image of a man are largely absent. Whether done deliberately or otherwise, we view Surya through a thick wall of glass.
This isn’t, as the promos might have led us to believe, the exclusive underdog sports story of a slumdog becoming a (figurative) millionaire, and neither is this a flinty examination of the shameful events of December 1992, with a single Mumbai ghetto standing in for a microcosm of the nation. The director goes for a loosely patterned weave of both these threads, with Surya’s life serving as the frame. As a result, there isn’t the primal emotional satisfaction that we’d get from the kind of fiery drama that either of these plotlines could have birthed – we don’t get to cheer the victory of the small man, and we aren’t asked to cower in terror at the depths to which we can descend in the name of religion. Arora’s muted docudrama approach, instead, allows us to soak in the richly detailed atmosphere – Striker is superbly shot and edited and scored – of a lived-in world whose oddly shaped fragments are meant to fit together inside our heads (as opposed to the filmmaker prefabricating, for us, our emotional responses). Arora does his job as a director, and he expects us to do ours as an audience.
This is, at once, a plus and a minus. Because our expectations of how events will play out are constantly subverted, the film keeps us on edge all the time. Where is all this headed, we keep wondering (and during the slacker moments, even if there is a point to all this). The story strands may be cliché, but there’s nothing clichéd about the ways in which they fuse together. When a drugged-up Zaid is egged on by Jaleel Bhai (Aditya Pancholi, as the local don whose bland handsomeness is redeemed by a sinister scar slicing through a cheek) to distract Surya during a key game, we are left with neither a showdown between friends nor a nail-biting progression of the game itself, with Surya’s opponent seizing an advantage. Even when, towards the end, the epithet of “striker” transfers from a piece on the carrom board to the protagonist himself – he becomes the one who strikes back – and when he transforms into a unwitting savior, we are denied the visceral rush we’d typically associate with such a heroic development. Striker is the low-key story of a low-key man, and it seems entirely fitting that it is narrated in this low-key manner, with scenes making their point discreetly and tiptoeing past, without pausing to preen with punch-moments.
And yet, there are times you wish for something forceful to cut through this clutch of carefully accumulated detail. At one juncture, it appears that Farooque (Anupam Kher), the level-headed cop, is going to be the moral voice of reason in this unavoidably opportunistic universe, someone whose authoritative presence informs both the carrom and the communal aspects of this story. But he’s just a diffuse presence on the sidelines. (In one particularly awkward bit, he’s thrust in front of the media and asked to justify the actions of his subordinates. He keeps threatening to develop into a significant figure, but this scene, like the others he’s in, goes nowhere.) What does it say of a film when everyone, including the protagonist, is rendered hard to read? We are always aware of the broad-strokes version of all that happened, but the lives of these people don’t possess the texture of their intricately etched-out surroundings. We’re drawn adroitly into the feel of the film, but we don’t feel for its characters.
To take the instance of Raging Bull – another multipronged sports-themed docudrama with flashbacks and underworld links and a staunch brother-figure – the boxer-protagonist’s battles with his opponents were simply the other side of the coin of his battles with himself. We loathed the outer shell of the man and yet pitied him and identified with his attempts to locate some semblance of inner peace. Surya, too, is enormously conflicted, but because we’re never allowed to enter his head, his passivity becomes quite troubling after a point, especially when he practically rapes Madhu (Padmapriya), a sympathetic fisherwoman who manages a bar. It’s a complicated turn of events but it doesn’t complicate our relationship with Surya because he’s played by Siddharth, an actor with a charming presence and melting puppy-eyes (that he likes to scrunch up ever so often) which assure us that he can’t be that bad. Had Surya been portrayed by Ankur Vikal – who, shorn of leading-man looks as well as the need to shoulder the film, delivers its most raw-edged and explosive performance – we might have thought differently. We might have, as the moment demands, recoiled in disgust. Is it right that the countenance of an angel be allowed to mask the deeds of the devil?
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