DI­REC­TOR ASHVIN KUMAR’S The For­est has lain lan­guish­ing for a want of dis­trib­u­tors since it was com­pleted in 2007. Per­haps the scari­est fact driven home by this fright­en­ing, tautly-paced film about a man-eat­ing leop­ard on the prowl, is that movies with a mes­sage are mar­ket­ing night­mares.

The trailer doesn’t help, lulling view­ers into be­liev­ing this is a harm­less rick­ety ride in the for­est. Fieen min­utes into the movie, fear is on the prowl. The leop­ard, un­doubt­edly the pro­tag­o­nist, can pounce onto the screen any mo­ment, and its pres­ence looms threat­en­ingly.

Ashvin Kumar chose his cast and crew with care. He shot the wildlife scenes with the Green Os­car­win­ning Bedi broth­ers, with the help of an­i­mal trainer Thierry Le Portier ( Gla­di­a­tor). Know­ing the com­plex­ity of the jun­gle-thriller genre, Kumar stuck with the ba­sic premise — ir­re­spon­si­ble tourists en­ter­ing a for­est with a man-eat­ing leop­ard. As the leop­ard plots its way to hu­man flesh, the hu­mans get deeply en­meshed in their own drama of the flesh. Radha’s (Nan­dana Sen), ex-lover Ab­hishek (Jaaved Jaf­fery), and her hus­band Pri­tam (Ankur Vikal) are vy­ing for her at­ten­tion. The char­ac­ters and their story are com­plex and nu­anced. Says Kumar, “When Jaaved and Nan­dana meet for the first time, you can sense a his­tory. But you don’t have to say what that his­tory is right away. Spell­ing out ev­ery de­tail is like look­ing down at the au­di­ence con­de­scend­ingly.”

Kumar uses peo­ple to progress his an­i­mal agenda. The sub­tle irony of an ur­ban cou­ple head­ing to a lush jun­gle to combat their own in­fer­til­ity, or the con­flicts over nat­u­ral habi­tat em­bod­ied by the men’s lust for a woman are not lost on the au­di­ence. Oc­ca­sion­ally, the lay­ered mean­ings de­clare them­selves on the sur­face. The an­i­mal­is­tic sex be­tween Radha and Ab­hishek ac­cen­tu­ates the wilder­ness of the movie, till she calls him an an­i­mal and spoils the viewer’s sat­is­fac­tion in un­spool­ing the mean­ing.

The in­tro­duc­tion of a mys­te­ri­ous tribal woman is a cheap trick that adds sus­pense but does not move the story. An ag­o­nis­ingly long scene of the leop­ard try­ing to break into a house is also overkill, with the an­i­mal seem­ing hu­man-like in its ma­nip­u­la­tion. “Once an an­i­mal be­comes a maneater, it changes the way it be­haves. Re­mem­ber the leop­ard that killed 450 peo­ple in seven years be­fore it was caught?” ar­gues Kumar. But he sac­ri­fices viewer in­ter­est to prove this point.

Shot in a span of just 35 days , there is much to re­deem this thriller of the jun­gle, with its tan­gles of a love tri­an­gle. But is it an eco­log­i­cal thriller? The mes­sage does not sink in as the movie pro­ceeds. Yet, the credit roll with pic­tures of trapped an­i­mals flashed on the screen hit the mes­sage like a bul­let, driv­ing the cruel con­se­quences of habi­tat en­croach­ment on the an­i­mals and on us in a quick, clean strike.

• An­i­mal at­tack The char­ac­ters jour­ney into the jun­gle

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