February 25, 2020
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India On The Ramp

Dev Benegal's 'Split Wide Open' takes a dressed up India to Venice

India On The Ramp

It was beginning to resemble the promise of the Anti-Christ. For four years, Benegal's Split Wide Open was always 'coming soon'. Now it finally has arrived, and how! The film has been chosen to be screened at the Venice film festival. Dev says he is "excited and only just realising how big this is." By the end of this year, if Benegal and Asha Parekh can have coffee together we, of frail sensibilities, will see the film the way it was meant to be seen. The movie is based on an original story written by Dev and Upamanyu Chatterjee. The screenplay has been done by Farrukh Dhondy.

The storyline of the film was always changing in the four-year gestation. Now, the way the film can be explained to an important distributor is that it exposes the new Indian morality, the consumeristic sexual escapades of the lowest common denominators of this country, perceived through the lives of four individuals whose paths are inextricably woven into each other's. But the most important element is that Dev's characters are not just brilliantly conceived but also original, something that other English film-makers have seldom managed to do.

There is an improbable mafia underling called KP (Rahul Bose), KP stands for Kut Price because that's exactly what he does. His calling is selling 'government' water to the poor and smuggled Evian to the rich. He speaks guttural Hindi and English when the need arises. As an orphan he was adopted by a good samaritan (played by Kiran Nagarkar) and is an upwardly mobile crook who has a mobile phone and a scooter. His ten-year-old sister Didi poignantly sells flowers at traffic signals. KP is appointed by the mafia don who, among other things, controls six water taps in different slums, something that the Caucasians will love to hear and see. When KP makes a deal on the sly, the don's retribution leaves the lead character broken and Didi simply vanishes. Enter Nandita (Laila Rouass), an nri, who's in India searching for her 'roots'. In her bid to understand the country, she hosts a television show called Split Wide Open—where characters, under the cover of darkness, reveal their sex lives which are strange, funny, moving and sometimes, all three. KP's path meets Nandita's when he goes to her office to sell, quite interestingly, mineral water. Soon, Nandita asks him to supply guests for her show. And a certain layer of love, which in this age means many things, falls into place.

Laila Rouss explains the most difficult part of her role: she had to kiss Rahul Bose. It was not about Bose or mouth wash, just that: "I find kissing on the sets, when so many people are watching, extremely difficult." What Laila did find easy was that she had to play herself. In contrast Ayesha Dharker (Leela) who is one of the guests on Nandita's show, says: "What I loved about my role was that I didn't have to play myself." She describes her character as "over the edge".

The story then comes to centre around the missing Didi. One thing that comes out of talking to the actors in the film is that they are extremely happy with their performances and are grateful to the film-making skills of Dev. Rahul Bose points out that this is his best performance ever. "There was criticism in Bombay Boys, apart from my accent, about what I was doing in the film," he says, adding: "The difference between Dev Benegal and Kaizad Gustad is that Dev knows how to make films."

Bose had to learn guttural Hindi and down-market mannerisms for the film. For this he took the help of a real-life cocaine dealer. "I found him through a friend," Rahul clarifies. This coke dealer spoke English, owned a carrom den and had even seen English, August. As an occupational hazard Bose had to meet the coke-dealer in all kinds of places. "Once I meet him at the Gymkhana," he says. By the time Bose started shooting for the film, his delivery of Hindi abuses was so good that in one scene the extra whom he was supposed to abuse got ominously angry. That's why the film promises to be exciting. Dev seems to have got the best out of his actors. After Venice, the film is expected to do its rounds at other film festivals. Dev disagrees that Indian-English films hit the international circuit because of hype back home: "International festivals are like bazaars where distributors come to buy films."

And, when asked if he is friends with the word hype, he said evasively, "In fact hype and I were in film school together. How do you know her?"

Because, Mr Benegal, you were seen with her, for four years.

Manu Joseph

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