The makers of X: Past is Present were very clear in announcing that their film is not an anthology. That makes sense because from the rushes it is easy to make such an assumption. The film is almost an equal parts effort from eleven directors – Abhinav Shiv Tiwari, Anu Menon. Hemant Gaba, Nalan Kumarasamy, Pratim D. Gupta, Q, Raja Sen, Rajshree Ojha, Sandeep Mohan, Sudhish Kamath, Suparn Verma. Yes, you may find some names in there that spring from the other end of the screen. Does that give way to a more self-aware effort? Sometimes. There is even a line that goes, “He needs a better script writer.” Of course that line is about God. The film is a stream of consciousness that is admirably more organic than you’d imagine. The problems though stem from the obvious dissonance when eleven directors are giving you different segments and the staging with flat performances and writing that is too straight.
K (Rajat Kapoor and Anushuman Jha) is a film director and X: Past is Present deals with a fantastical rerun of his love lives. There is a throwaway shot to an idol of Lord Krishna (I think) possibly signifying K’s lascivious interests. And just like Krishna was an incarnation of Vishnu, Past is Present too documents K’s different incarnations. Or of his lovers? His most famous film is 8 to 8 – no prizes for guessing which film it references – and its subject also forms one of the best segments in X directed by Pratim D. Gupta. It’s the most lyrical of the lot and operates only in vignettes – a kind of filmmaking that suits best for cinema of this kind. There is a lot of food to chew in X: Past is Present. It begins with a bitter cake – a bitter first pill that leads to bigger ones in K’s love stories. There are oysters that are purely experimental for K. Rija (Radhika Apte) and K sit down for celebratory dinner where Rija can only complain about too much chilli in K’s cooking. Even ice water is spiked that lets you in on the jerk that is K and how he cannot separate cinema and reality. This horrific nature is filmed by – who else – Q and features a sibilant Rii Sen. There is also a lot of foreshadowing – a cheap film camera to a handy-cam, talk of sex leading to arguments about having a child.
X also has a lot of sex. But it is present just around the corner. Never shown. It’s either before or after. It’s talk mentioning condoms or having children or about cheating. When K pitches his film he talks about a platonic love story that is also intense. Only a handful of the directors capture that and manage to keep you guessing. There is Raja Sen’s Vina played by Huma Qureshi. Vina and K indulge in a bit of role play to get him ready for an interview. Vina, obviously the older one, bosses him around till he gives in to his emotions. The trajectory of the conversation here makes you wonder what sex would be like between these two. There is more than a hint of sadomasochism and in K’s own words, Vina is the one who not only deflowered him but also devoured him. She’s appropriately dressed to kill. Not every segment maintains this enigmatic nature of K’s hypnagogic retrospective. A California dalliance that is forgettable for both K and the audience. A story with lines like “yeh sab samay ka khel hai” that just does not work with that character. It adds an aural dissonance to the visual one, only this time it may be a bug and not a feature. A major issue with X is literalization of its ideas. People in X show less and spell out a little too much. An uninspired Aditi Chengappa does not help in the frame story. Due to that, Kapoor too is on auto pilot in scenes with her. It’s Nalan Kumarasamy that shows who the boss is. It’s his portion with impeccable staging and fewest of lines. His story is the one with a lot of meat.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)