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A thriller whose tense, dystopian atmosphere distantly recalls Coppola’s The Conversation, Dipesh Jain’s Hindi-language feature In the Shadows (Gali Guliyan) explores the roots of paranoia in a loner intent on spying on his neighbors. Here the protagonist’s obsession expresses itself through cheap, jerry-rigged surveillance cameras that he watches with morbid fascination. Earning a jury mention at the Mumbai film festival’s Asian Gold competition, this first feature boasts promising intensity, even if its narrative complexity feels contrived. And the shadows cast over an innocent psyche can feel very heavy-handed and downbeat.
The story opens with William S. Burroughs’s wry observation: “There are no innocent bystanders … what are they doing there in the first place?” In Old Delhi’s dense warren of narrow streets laced with dangling electric wires, behind a dirty, crumbling storefront, Khuddoos (Manoj Bajpayee) feverishly scans a stack of monitors to see what casual passersby are up to outside his dark den. Perhaps they are about to commit a crime — though it’s not clear what he would or could do about preventing violence if it did occur.
Increasingly caught up in his grim obsessions to the point of losing touch with reality and the passage of time, he would die of starvation watching those monitors if it weren’t for his one together friend (Ranvir Shorey) who donates groceries and helps him negotiate often hostile surroundings. But when he begins to hear the sound of a boy being brutally beaten in the adjoining apartment, it pushes him over the edge. Frantically he wires up more spycams in an attempt to find and save the lad, but his efforts just infuriate the neighbors, without turning up any trace of the young victim.
Intercut with Khuddoos‘ progressive paranoia is a parallel tale about two boys who are bosom buddies and who prowl the backstreets together. Little Idu is the bright, observant son of a violent butcher and a loving mother who vainly tries to protect him from his father’s drunken wrath. Secretly following Dad one day, he spies on him through a high window and discovers him in bed with a woman. What follows tragically seals the fate of the whole family.
The story is poignantly told with some nice twists, but its central mystery is a fail. Jain tries to use the timeless quality of blackened Old Delhi to suggest that events are taking place simultaneously, hinting that Idu is the abused boy Khuddoos is looking for. But any attentive viewer will soon connect the dots. In any case, this non-revelation is unnecessary and the story works better without it.
Holding what is practically a one-man show, Baypayee is intense if one-note as the angry vigilante voyeur. Disliked and distrusted by his neighbors as a Peeping Tom, he seems to have no family ties; his painful, estranged relationship to his successful, arrogant younger brother is the only hint that he ever had a family. His scowling face rarely changes, even when he cuts his hand and sews up the wound with a needle and thread in his grimy bathroom.
Editor Chris Witt is exceptionally good at alternating the grown-up’s and children’s stories, building ever stronger tension as the climax approaches, while Kai Miedendorp’s lighting creates a sinister atmosphere through extensive use of those titular shadows.
Production company: Exstant Motion Pictures
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Neerajkabi, Ranvir Shorey, Shahana Goswami
Director, screenwriter: Dipesh Jain
Producers: Shuchi Jain, Dipesh Jain, Lina Verma
Director of photography: Kai Miedendorp
Production, costume designer: Sujeta Sharma Virk
Editor: Chris Witt
Music: Dana Niu
Venue: Mumbai Film Festival (India Gold)
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