Director/Screenwriter: Karan Gour
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The 2011 Chicago International Film Festival had a special focus on South Asia that was a particularly welcome addition to the films on offer. CIFF has a tendency to be top-heavy with European—especially French—films, and India never seems to have more than a couple of slots in any given year. One of the Indian films I wanted to see but didn’t find space for was Karan Gour’s debut film Corrode. The intriguing premise—the growing obsession of a woman for the figure of the goddess Lakshmi—fed into my interest in religion and women’s issues. Fortunately, I got another opportunity to see this film recently, and found that it tracked favorably with another favorite 2011 CIFF film of mine, Southwest, another gorgeously photographed, black-and-white film with a spiritual dimension and birth at its center.
The central protagonist is a young, married artist named Chhaya (Rasika Dugal) whose first appearance on screen bodes ill for her future. She picks up a sharp, triangular rock and tosses it into the road; a car racing by catches the corner of the rock and flings it back at Chhaya, gashing her face. She wanders into a shop where statues are carved, many of them for a Bombay festival during which they will be thrown into the sea. A large, as-yet-unpainted sculpture of Lakshmi mesmerizes Chhaya. When she asks the young sculptor (Adityavardhan Gupta) how much the statue costs, he quotes a price far outside her budget: “We don’t bargain here.” With reluctance, she leaves her Lakshmi behind, but like the rock that opened her flesh, this object has left its mark, one that will last beyond the end of the film.
Corrode is masterful in its economic storytelling and projection of mood and emotion. We recognize immediately the love between Chhaya and her husband Arvind (Alekh Sandal) in only two brief scenes—Chhaya telling Arvind she is perfectly happy with the life he has given her, though it is apparent that they are barely making it, and the couple’s thrill and curiosity during her pregnancy. We also watch Chhaya’s maternal instinct in full flower when she is asked to babysit a neighbor’s infant for a few hours. Her playful baby talk and careful construction of a cradle from a bedsheet are sweet and very endearing.
Chhaya and Arvind’s tragedy is her miscarriage and resulting infertility, and we can see that for her it is a fathomless void that she believes only Lakshmi can fill. Director Gour emphasizes this absolutism by shooting in black and white and having Chhaya prefer the statue in its unpainted state. The whites are so pure, and the blacks are so dark that Chhaya will do anything to get the money to possess her Lakshmi.
The irony loaded into this film cannot be missed by anyone familiar with Hinduism and what the goddess Lakshmi represents. Devotees pray to Lakshmi for prosperity and fertility, and she is thought to bring good luck. It is natural that Chhaya would appeal to Lakshmi to make her fertile again, and a well-meaning neighbor (Nitika Anand) said that she knew a woman who became pregnant through Lakshmi’s intercession. The truth is that Chhaya’s unresolved grief causes her to pursue a cure that is worse than the illness. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes, but counting on a supreme being to make everything better offers a blind and dangerous hope, one we see played out on the larger world stage every day. In fact, far from prosperity, Chhaya’s obsession destroys what litte she and Arvind have, and the love he bears for her in trying to help her would have been better directed at finding her a good psychiatrist. Sadly, for those on the precarious edge of the working class, as Chhaya and Arvind are, psychiatry is financially out of reach. Unfortunately, it appears that religion is just as expensive, and Chhaya feels not so much faith as desperation.
Corrode is a film that lingers in the mind, in part due to its brilliant cinematography. I’m more and more impressed with the results that can be achieved with newer generations of HD cameras and processes, in this case a Sony HDR FX7, shot on HDV 50i and converted to 25p in post-production to give it a rich, near-nitrate look. The many close-ups of the expressive leads in the film seem to pierce into their souls, and the actors seem very comfortable working in such close quarters. This film is well worth a look.