Neoliberal Desire

Bhavum: Emotions of Being. Dir: Satish Menon, 2002, India.

An ominous figure looms over Satish Menon's Bhavum. We see a giant cut out of him, listen to his voice broadcast on the streets of Cochi, hear him mentioned in television and radio newscasts and read his name in newspaper headlines. Though not one of main players in the movie, the plans of Krishnandanan, a fictional state minister pushing for privatization of state industries, sets the personal and political drama of Joy and Lata, the young couple at the heart of the film, into motion.

Krishnandanan's plans entangle the characters of Bhavum in various ways. Joy, a newspaper reporter, climbs into bed with private industry through his biased reporting and faith in the wonders of bottled water, credit cards and the consumption of goods necessary for the new middle class life in India. Lata, alarmed at the change in her husband, is surrounded by the material possessions quickly filling the space of their existence and creating a wedge in their relationship. Meanwhile, the appearance of Lata's sister Subadra, seemingly coincides with the pressure Joy feels to be a provider for his wife and unborn child. Establishing and reestablishing this backdrop throughout the movie, Menon weaves the effects of privatization and its underlying ethics into the relationship of the three main characters.

The movie begins with a passenger ferry pulling into a dock in Cochi. Lata walks off the platform with the rest of the crowd. The camera shifts to the numerous foreign commercial billboards that dot the horizon: men's underwear, a woman dripping in jewelry, a man in a business suit, a woman in her bra and panties. The camera then cuts to Joy standing at the doorway of the newspaper he works for. He looks between the underwear clad woman and a hoarding of Krishnandanan. The minister's arm is up at an angle, pointing to the woman. Catching the ironic communion between the half naked woman and the minister, Joy smirks.

Lata is teaching Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment to a room full of apathetic college students. She poses question after question about the book. "If you had to do something you knew was morally wrong, how would you convince yourself to go through with it?" Waiting for responses that never come, she relents and answers the questions herself. "Raskolnikov had already justified to his conscience that he was an exceptional individual and therefore above the moral law. What was his problem?" She scans the room, and walks to the board. The students sit up straight waiting for the answer. "His conscience was protesting, while his reason was justifying. Why?" Still no response. She finally writes the word "Guilt" on the board.

With echoes of A Streetcar Named Desire, the third main character is Subadra, Lata's older, beautiful sister. She shows up unannounced after eight years of ending contact when Lata, a Hindu, eloped with Joy, a Christian. Intent on reconnecting with her sister, Lata insists that Subadra stay with her and Joy, at least until their child, due in five months, arrives. Subadra moves through the household like a ghost, giving glib statements in stilted tones. What has ensued in the last eight years is a mystery that she keeps hidden.

Though the three characters form a triangle of guilt, conscience and justification, Joy is the axis of the movie. Menon's film is a rumination on the slow collapse of Joy's ethical grounding. The film is set during a crucial moment in Joy's life. He and Lata are expecting their first child. Having lived with his aunt for years, they have finally decided to move into their own house to start the family. Soon after, Joy is promoted to the head of the editorial page at the newspaper. Instead of portraying Joy's downfall through numerous plot twists and punctuated climaxes, Bhavum lays out the story of Joy's transformation through the decisions he makes in his professional and private life.

We see Joy looking covetously at a credit card used by a wealthy foreign businessman, and a few scenes later, using a newly acquired card to purchase a television. The responsibility he feels towards a policeman who helps him keep his family out of a police investigation is translated into taking a soft stand in the editorial page on excessive police force during an anti-globalization protest. After lunch with the head of a foreign water company who insists that privatization is the only way to ensure clean water, Joy carries a large bottle of the company's water in his hands to keep at home. And finally, when water contamination charges are made against the foreign company, Joy threatens a reporter with dismissal if she cannot dispute the charges. All these incidents are propelled by Joy's desire for things, security and the rationalization of his decisions. And through everyday, simple acts, Menon does an excellent job portraying the ethical compromises that Joy makes to justify his desires.

Menon exposes the fraught nature of Joy's desire. During a conversation with a college friend he hasn't seen in sometime, Subadra comes up. The friend, having forgotten her name, asks how Lata's sister is, and goes on to describe her as a woman that every one was after. Throughout the movie, Joy's reaction to Subadra oscillates between disgust and wanting. Walking through the house, Joy catches a glimpse of Subadra's half dressed silhouette moving about the room and stops to watch. However, in other scenes his hostility for her is shown through his near violent interaction with her when he reveals that he knows her secret. Joy's desire for Lata is initially shown through his repeated attempts at physical contact with her. Later this shifts to the weight he feels to provide for her and their child. At every charge that Lata makes against him, he retorts that he is doing this so they will live comfortably.

Though Joy is the journalist, it is Lata's life that is permeated by the media. She is shown reading Joy's articles and challenging him on his changing positions, listening to the reports of Krishananda plans, and shutting of the television during a newscast of the state minister's campaign platform. Lata is literally Joy's conscious, Sonya to Raskalnikov. However, he chooses not to listen to her, defending his actions through his desire to provide a comfortable life for them.

Bhavum is a movie saturated with things: media, guilt, desire, commodities. Menon has filmed the movie in such a way that there is no escape from what is happening. From Krishnandanan's ubiquity to the presence of media in all its forms to Joy and Lata's house stuffed with objects, the movie has a claustrophobic mood that works. Though critical of privatization, the movie stays away from judgment of the characters and does an admirable job of pushing the viewer to place the actions of Joy, Lata and Subadra in the larger contexts of their lives.

Bhavum does, however, throw in many ancillary issues that the movie does not fully address — communal tensions, spousal abuse, and homosexuality, among others. Luckily, all but the spousal abuse suffered by Subadra, are mentioned in passing and Menon always returns the focus on the unraveling of one person's life through his choices. Although the issues detract from the larger story somewhat, they are put to good use explaining distance and emotional confusion experienced by the characters. Bhavum is a multi-layered movie. The privatization thread runs strongly through it, but there are other stories to be teased out.

The strength and potential of the movie, however, lays in its ability to expose the effects of privatization on individual lives. While focusing on the restricted drama of the household, Menon never lets the larger political backdrop fade away. In an era of growing income gaps, abdication of governmental responsibilities, and the influx of foreign capital into Southern economies, a simple story of personal relationships brings into stark relief our own complicity and complications in this process.

Comments

"hi L- i liked your piece - i think its a well written review- focusing on an interesting element of the film. i saw it earlier this wk and didn't really think about it much till reading your review but heres what comes to mind. while i support s. asian progressive films over and over again- and while this one did a marginally decent job of addressing ancillary ideas of the pervasive nature of conspicous consumption, capitalism and the consequent transformtions in a tiny family (the worst example of movies that take on too much being clay pots or clay birds or some such thing- which had all sorts of random threads of info. that were never picked up again creating a very FRAYED viewing experience) on a much more superficial level- this film (bhavum) plays into the cliche of emasculating straight male characters. i'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm not sayii'm norother a break every once in a while. the only decent guy in this film was gay- or a tangential cop. i remember ranting about a film called a world w/o women- back when i blogged- http://ompower.com/blog/2003_11_01_ghistory (see mon. nov. 3) but i mean its just a bit cliche. i'm in no way doubting the plausability of the spousal abuse or challenging it yadda yadda... but i mean at some point i think my diminishing marginal return has been reached of seeing representations of south asian men as just creepy in one way or another. m not just talking as a single straight man who seems constantly compared to the anti-krishna/christ/allah (for simply BEING)- by interesting progressive and yuppie women who otherwise seem well adjusted. pity me not. i'm ready to take smack for the abhorent behaviors of my ancestors etc., but to have every indy movie i go to chicken out and paint their lead male characters with such a cheap brush... ugh. i'm not fighting for our ""brand"" or any such thing... its just banal. of course i don't think our identies are shaped entirely by an arthouse film or two but there are hardly ever balanced roles of strong s. asian men and women leads in indy films. perhaps its a technique taught in film school/ perhaps its some artistic response to whats out there... but why can't one of these bold directors dare to dream a little - and stop using such simple flaws and relatively cheap plot crutches like mysterious yet traumatic pasts involving spousal abuse and stick with the bigger arc you were alluding to in your critique. >sigh :-( i know the response will probably that i should stop my bitchin' and go watch some amitab... but anyway... just my two bits. best, h"

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