In one of the rare scenes that hint at modern India in Ronny Sen’s “Cat Sticks,” a young woman named Orna (Sreejita Mitra) is at a club dancing with a film director she hopes to impress, seeing a starring role in one of his projects as a one-way ticket out of town. He coos, “What I want to say I can’t say very loudly,” despite being in a place where the two can barely hear each other, and she responds seductively, “You’re a director. You should know other ways.” By this point, midway through “Cat Sticks,” you realize that Sen is following her advice (which of course, he’s written for her) in approaching the tale of the scourge of drug addiction in Calcutta where four stories converge to show the grip heroine – known locally as “brown sugar” – has on its characters and by extension, the city where it’s hollowed out families and neighborhoods, preventing them from moving into the future.
Filmed in lush monochrome accompanied by a bewitching score that oscillates between classical strings and electric guitar, the film approximates the intoxication its characters feel while bringing its darkness up front, opening with the inescapable image of three men wandering towards an abandoned plane on a rainy night to get high inside. Deshik (Saurabh Saraswat) turns out to be the most helpless of the trio, eventually returning home to parents who gingerly try to contain him from further abuse, while his two friends stay back to bike around town. In the mean time, Sen visits with their drug-dealing counterparts Tamanna (Joyraj Bhattacharya) and Toto (Kalpan Mitra) hang out on a corner waiting to strike a deal, a father who bides his time during the day to walk the streets at night to make ends meet, and Orna and her boyfriend Som, whom she’s planning to leave if she can get a career going.
As the influence of drugs courses through the film, not only are Sen and cinematographer Shreya Dev Dube skilled at fashioning arresting compositions, but “Cat Sticks” becomes particularly provocative in expressing a narcotic’s embrace in unexpected visual terms, leading to at least one balletic scene featuring two nude addicts that will likely start off any number of conversations the film is likely to spark. But naturally, after the immediate buzz wears off of any of these striking images, the film’s true potency is revealed and although narratively, there isn’t much direct cause and effect when the physical distance between people only grows as they fear they’re alone in their desperation, a portrait of interconnected experience emerges with the feeling of futility hovering over the city as strongly as the constant downpour that bears down on it.
Sen and co-writer Soumyak Kanti DeBiswas craft chit-chat that may feel cryptic at first to anyone but locals about regional law enforcement, cyclical criminality and lack of opportunity, but when paired with the sparse environments and impunity that people behave with as if there’s nothing left to lose, the picture becomes clearer of a place where every injection has drawn out a pint of its lifeblood. Rather than being depressing, the liveliness of Sen’s presentation activates the senses at every turn and although it’s unlikely to win over those averse to slow cinema, “Cat Sticks” has a way of quickening the pulse — a way that indeed a talented director would know.
“Cat Sticks” screens again at Slamdance on January 31st at 3:15 pm at the Ballroom.