J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Ithaca Fantastik ’16: Autohead

A hipster filmmaker set out to make a poverty-porn documentary, but he shot the Hindi version of Natural Born Killers instead. Moto-rickshaw driver Narayan Srivastav is already violent, misogynistic, and sexually frustrated, but the camera only encourages his anti-social behavior in Rohit Mittal’s Autohead (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Ithaca Fantastik.

Srivastav’s desperately poor life ought to be the stuff of foreign film festival plaudits, but the director, his sound man, and his cameraman will get a nasty surprise when they meet Roopa, the prostitute. Srivastav clearly fancies himself her pimp and lover, but she clearly sees him as a creepy guy who occasionally refers clients her way. Srivastav’s interest in her gives sexual obsession a bad name. It also further poisons his problematic opinion of women in general.

As a mass of seething resentments, it does not take much to push Srivastav into violence. Of course, once he starts, it is hard to stop. Indeed, the resulting feeling of power stokes the hypocritical cabbie’s delusions of moral righteousness.

Like its obvious inspirations, Oliver Stone’s NBK and the NC-17 Belgian mockumentary Man Bites Dog, Autohead has as much to say about media malpractice as it does about the sociological causes of violent crime. The line between reportage and voyeurism is similarly porous in all three films. Salman Khan also gets name-checked a lot (so good luck getting a wide release in India).

It is pretty eerie watching Deepak Sampat turn on a dime from pathetic sad sack to sociopathic psychopath in a matter of seconds. It is a bold, fiercely unsentimental performance that really drives the film. In contrast, Ronjini Chakroborty’s Roopa is a potent, sexualized force, whose heedlessness just makes viewers wince. Frankly, we have seen the gist of this before, but the work of Sampat and Chakroborty, as well as the Mumbai setting, makes it feel relatively fresh all over again.

It is hard not to think about the horrific death of Jyoti Singh (documented in India’s Daughter) while viewing Autohead, which is definitely a buzz kill. Yet, that sort of reaction is exactly what Mittal is hoping for. It is a violent indictment of misogynist violence—and it mostly works as it was intended. Recommended for those who appreciate extreme social criticism, Autohead screens this Thursday (11/10) during Ithaca Fantastik.

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