Children are anything but drops of pearl from heaven. Film and Television Institute of India (FTII, Pune) graduate Ashmita Guha Neogi’s student film CatDog, which has just won the first prize at Cannes, is, in a way, a doffing of the hat to Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini in his birth centenary year, who drew on childhood memories in his films. A 2014 Sight & Sound magazine article quotes from his 1980 memoir Fare un Film: “For children, everything is fantastical because it is unknown, unseen, never tested, the world presents itself to the child without intentions…where everything lives, subject and object, confused in one incessant flux.” Unlike Fellini, Guha Neogi had no lived experience to draw from for her film, a daring post-modern attempt. CatDog crystallises the 29-year-old Delhi girl’s initial preoccupations at FTII, toying with “elephant-in-the-room” ideas, such as a world not bound by civilisation. She probes into sibling power dynamics and risqué self-discovery to present an inside-out “child’s world but not for children”.
When the 73rd Cannes Film Festival, which couldn’t hold a physical edition owing to the pandemic, announced the official Cinéfondation 2020 selection some months ago, the short film CatDog made the cut as one of the 17 films, among 1,952 works from 444 film schools. Last week, at the Cannes’ quiet, three-day “Special” event, this sole Indian film in Cannes 2020 list won the first prize (€15,000 grant). The last time an FTII film got selected, not won though, at Cinéfondation was in 2017, Payal Kapadia’s Afternoon Clouds. Screened last month at MAMI’s Home Theatre series, and after travelling to San Sebastian and Tel Aviv, CatDog is showing at the ongoing 9th Dharamshala International Film Festival till November 8.
FTII, where Guha Neogi got into on her second attempt, helped her “develop her own language, grammar, form”. Without it, she might had made a very different film. With a team (of students from her 2013 batch), production money, equipment, editing being provided, all Guha Neogi had to do, with the guidance of National Award-winning film director Kamal Swaroop, was to wrest her “abstract idea from the philosophical to the concrete” under “25 minutes”. This was, presumably, “the last (and only) time” she would get to “shoot on film,” she says, “there’s a certain quality of softness that film (celluloid) gives you”. They had to “rehearse and rehearse” to get a shot right in just “two takes”.
A film about two siblings, an absent father, a teacher-mother (Ketaki Saraf), who has no time for them, their mother’s male colleague who creases her up, smoothens her sari pleats – the 14-year-old Rachna (played by a 21-year-old Rachna Godbole) is a witness, but never a participant. Biology book seems dull, she watches animals mate on TV. In a parallel world – in moments stolen away from prying adult eyes – she exists unrestrained.
Joined at the hip, the film’s title, and the protagonists, take from the eponymous American animated TV series, in which a cat and dog, so different in nature, are stuck in one body. In CatDog, the older sister is the dominating-dictating cat while her brother is the loyal-follower dog. Their games hint at the erotic, at incest. Of the fried-fish pieces she throws at the barking dogs outside, she throws one at her brother, who immediately knows it is playtime. He ties on the leash and bows at her feet; she teases him with the morsel. This and the last scene create a palpable sense of unease. The discomfort, of course, results from straightjacketed social morality.
Guha Neogi, 29, interrogates but not for “shock value”; “incest is not only socially frowned upon, but is also a genetic problem,” she says. “Childhood and growing up is idyllic until suddenly, you’re thrown at the deep end, without any tools to navigate the adult world, the predicament of having one foot each in two boats,” she says. The film is about self-discovery, seen through Rachna’s eyes, “whose identity is deeply tied to that of the boy”.
Guha Neogi, the could-have-been dancer, who pursued Odissi when she couldn’t crack FTII first, “choreographs” her scenes, using gestures and gaze. Prateek Pamecha’s lens creates two distinct worlds. The teens’ off-focus, low contrast, dreamy universe, especially the sequences in the misty wilderness, like the opening scene, shot in Pune’s Tamhini Ghat, and later when the kids are perched on a branch, the boy’s body with two pairs of legs visible, looks like a “two-headed snake”. A union that will be broken by adult intervention. In the last sequence, for a blindfold game, as the girl ties her head and face in a black polybag – a freaky, disturbing image – she’s divested of her personality, knowledge and power to hold on to her brother, who leaves with his luggage.
Guha Neogi wanted to recreate the atmospheric feel of the children’s world of Sally Mann’s black-and-white photographs and Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, a regular dose of the latter accompanied her growing years. In playing house-house, or board games like the property-trading Monopoly, the games children play are not just games, but a sardonic emulation of the ways in which adults operate.
Unlike the saccharine “pure, innocent, godlike” depictions of children of early 20th-century cinema, CatDog challenges adult assumptions about childhood. It shows adults as fallible, imperfect or absent. The child, on the other hand, can be unpredictable, malevolent, playful now, cruel then, and has to look inwards. It shows what happens when children are left alone, when there are no rules left to break.
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