Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A normal boy who does stupid things…”

Posted on August 29, 2014


Thoughts on ‘Njan Steve Lopez’, and the problem with email interviews.

Slowly, surely, Rajeev Ravi, known to most people as “Anurag Kashyap’s cinematographer,” is creating an identity for himself as a filmmaker. His superb first film, Annayum Rasoolum (“Anna and Rasool”), was about a young man who falls in love. The girl rebuffs him at first, then she says she loves him – and then fate throws a big, fat spanner in the works. The young man gets involved, somewhat tangentially, in some criminal activity, and things are never the same again. One of the marks of an auteur is the recurrence of themes, motifs, events, and it’s certainly too soon to even be considering Ravi an auteur – but his second film, the fascinating and deeply atmospheric Njan Steve Lopez, follows pretty much the same trajectory. Young man. Rebuff. Love. Spanner-throwing fate. Tangential involvement with criminals. It’s all there – but in a different form. Annayum Rasoolum was essentially a love story, while Njan Steve Lopez (“I am Steve Lopez”) is a coming-of-age saga.

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And the protagonist, Steve Lopez, certainly needs to come of age. At first, he’s just an amiable loser. He drinks. He sleeps all the time. The girl he likes, Anjali, says he lives in a fool’s paradise and has no plan. (She’s more focused. She’s moving to Bangalore, which is where all young Malayalis, at least the ones on screen, seem to be heading these days.) Then, one day, he witnesses a brutal attack – men he doesn’t know are hacking away at a man he doesn’t know. Probably for the first time in his life, he does something for someone else. He gets a sense of… purpose. He sets about saving the victim. This is where the film really takes off. Coming-of-age stories are usually woven around dysfunctional families or an ill-fated romance, but Njan Steve Lopez locates the protagonist’s arc in the midst of the kind of paranoia thrillers Hollywood made in the 1970s (though in a more muted form). Deep cover-ups, an unyielding establishment, mysteries that are best left untouched – that’s the kind of stuff Steve gets into.

The film is really about a quest – a quest for answers, a quest for identity (note the “I” in that title), a quest for the political in a life that’s so far been only about the personal – and I was thrown off, a little, by the Camus quote at the beginning: “Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence.” Because I didn’t see much rebelling here, at least the kind you find in the average angry-young-man movie. I asked Ravi (via email; he was in Cochin) what the quote meant to him, and he replied, “Basically, the film is about this boy who realizes that his dad is not on the right side, the side that his parents and society have schooled him about. A decision to go against this is itself a rebellion for me. The thought of Steve going against his father and the time he takes to take the step is the act of rebellion… It’s an internal rebellion, going against everyone’s advice.”

I then asked him about the film’s dreamy, hypnotic pace, which is one of its greatest strengths (just as it was in Annayum Rasoolum) – and yet, commercially speaking, probably one of its drawbacks as well. Wouldn’t he be able to look at a larger audience with a film that moved faster? He said that he gets a grip on the pace of a film as he goes about the process – “it’s an inherent pace that develops. I don’t believe in manipulating the pace for commercial purposes. My basic intention is to tell a story, and the pace sets in during the filming.” When I asked him about his music – gentle, plaintive background scores, with lots of acoustic guitar, even in the fight scenes – he said he didn’t have an explanation. “It’s the instinct or the feel. I prefer to have a kind of narrative in the music as well – an interpretation. I am unable to give you a technical explanation. It’s just the feel. I had two people doing the background score.”

I was also curious about the second half of the film being a mirror of the first. There’s another woman named Anjali. Another scene where Steve peers through a barred window and sees a housewife doing chores. Another out-of-the-blue attack that he witnesses. Another wounded thug that he takes to the doctor. Another reason for his father to be upset with him. Another status update on Whatsapp. Another run-in with cops who suspect he may have been drinking. Ravi said, “Steve is drawn out from his world into another space, which is actually not alien to him. There are similar incidents, which are supposed to be reflected in a different way. So this was intentionally done.” This is when I wished I had spoken to Ravi directly about the film. Emails just don’t give you what you want. You just end up with a fraction of what you are really after.

There are questions, too, that cannot be adequately expressed through email. Face to face, you ask a question, and the interviewee responds, and then you tweak the question, make it sharper, and he gives you a more accurate answer, and then you zoom in more, and he zooms in too, and you finally get the answer you were looking for. For instance, I wanted to ask Ravi about the scenes (this is really an editing thing) where something minor, like a grace note, happens after the point of the scene is over and done with – the long shot that shows Steve staring at a gurney being wheeled away, the shot of feet running down a flight of stairs. But I knew this kind of nuts-and-bolts question would never work over email. I asked him, instead, if he felt that Steve could be labelled stupid by viewers, for not minding his own business, especially when he’s not really lit with a big enough fire inside to do the things he does, to rebel as he does (if that’s how you want to read his actions, following that Camus quote). Ravi said, “Yes, Steve will be called stupid by everyone. For me, Steve is anyone in that age group. He’s not a hero. He’s just a normal boy who does stupid things.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.