Writer Arijit Basu has written a review of Cat Sticks, a film with an intriguing name and a compelling storyline – it’s movie time in Los Angeles. Join the lines outside the theater!
An abandoned plane lies stranded in the middle of a field during a torrential downpour. A metaphor for flying high and then crashing hard seems to be the idea behind the striking opening shot of the black and white noir by debutant Bengali filmmaker Ronny Sen. The airplane is an “adda” (hangout) for three ne’er-do-wells in murky Kolkata. Their flight plan? Chase the high proffered by brown sugar. Life is a drug. Or drag. Depending which way you choose to get high off it.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, Kolkata was besieged by the influx of cheap heroin. Or smack, as it’s alternately known. The illicit drug infiltrated the lower and middle class rapidly, as can be seen by the characters in the film. Whether it’s a bright Presidency College alum French-spouting political junkie, or a cross-dressing middle class father who turns tricks to get a few bucks, smack knows no class or hierarchy.
The film is rife with many a memorable sequence. From the homoerotic hallucinogenic naked tableau between two characters trying to find a vacant vein, to a young man being locked in his room (and with his demons) by his exasperated parents who are preparing him for rehab.
There is a hint of Tarantino in director Sen’s deft touch, as two parallel stories merge in a fateful tunnel. The motley crew of characters populating the film manage to not overpower each other’s presence while pulling the crisply edited narrative forward. A strong statement on the negative influence of Communist rule in Kolkata and its repercussions on the people is another noteworthy aspect of Cat Sticks. The oddly named film references the brand of wax matches favored by smackheads to smoke up with. The visual of a stoned character with umpteen matches lodged in his hair bunched like a crow’s nest makes one laugh involuntarily, even though his situation is dire. The film is almost tragi-comic at times: whether it’s a father who’s openly smoking up in front of his little son who’s eating dinner, to the shadowy addict whose manhood has been lopped off in a government scheme in exchange for a few bucks. The film is not shy of pulling punches to chase the truth.
The dirge like atmosphere in the film is punctuated with stabbing guitar licks by composer Oliver Weeks. The instrumental score is reminiscent of Neil Young’s searing work in ‘Dead Man.’ The film pays a non-glorious homage to a dark chapter in Kolkata’s recent history. As one of the characters poignantly reflects, “You were promised the ocean, but all you received was a river.” That’s the magical realism of the drug subculture. As the Che Guevara t-shirt clad peddler indicates by ushering in frantic addicts hoping for a late night score, the gateway to cheap drugs is always open. Some fights are lost, a few are won, but both happen at the cost of your humanity, dignity and soul. The war on drugs is a never ending battle everywhere.
And thus, Cat Sticks has a compelling universal appeal. It doesn’t glamorize the lifestyle thankfully, and therein lies the maturity of director Ronny Sen. A slow burner that ends in an exploding fireball of images, sharp dialog and style, Cat Sticks is an incendiary debut for its young firebrand filmmaker.
Arijit is a restless traveler, academic, film and history enthusiast. He is from Mumbai originally, by way of Texas. Currently he is exploring all that California has to offer.