I managed to watch three films during the just concluded Asian Film Festival, right across the street from my house. The Chinese film Postmen in the Mountains left an indelible impression on my mind, not so the other movies, with the possible exception of one other film, newcomer Samyak Sandipani's My friend Saleem.
The film documents the friendship between two undergraduate engineering students who come together in one of Maharashtra's private engineering colleges. This is a pathbreaking film (maybe I use that qualification too freely) possibly the first to take a candid, realistic look at higher education and student life in our colleges.
Rahul is from the countryside from a typical small-town middle class family (the kind that budgets for buying soap). Akhilesh is the son of NRI parents living somewhere in the Middle East or in Souteast Asia. By a strange quirk of fate, these disparate creatures are thrown together in the same dorm room, and the film builds its narrative from there.
A montage of small, poignant sequences during the titles introduces us to both of these characters as they embark on their journey to the college. Once there, predictably enough, the film follows the inevitable clash of cultures between the determined, bookish and overly pragmatic Rahul and the free-spirited, sensitive, naive Akhilesh as they both come to grips with new surroundings.
After this, the film splits into two narrative threads that are occasionally intertwined and then unify into a single logical whole as the film climaxes.
Akhilesh falls for a girl quite obviously not meant for him, and gets his heart broken, trying to compete with his 'localite' competitor.
This is a brave attempt to analyse adolescent social groupings in modern India. A spate of 80's American 'high-school' movies (The Breakfast Club, Breaking Away, or the more recent Mean Girls) have superficially dealt with this issue, but Sandipani opts for a more profound look at the underlying socio-economic and cultural factors that decide how young people of today factor in peer pressure and media images into their decision making. He seems to make the interesting hypothesis, for instance, that economic awareness greatly affect individual maturity. In a male-dominated culture like India, women very rarely are allowed to fend for themselves, and this causes their world view to become skewed -- they see the world only through the eyes of men around them. Akhilesh's experiences somehow seem to reinforce this hypothesis, and he finds himself unable to surmount the social barriers erected against him (through innuendo, deceit and misrepresentation) by his competitors.
A much more fascinating and profound narrative thread, however, revolves around the serious, academically inclined Rahul. He ends up being cruelly manipulated by one of his professors who publishes some of Rahul's work as his own. Shaken and disillusioned by what he considers to be a betrayal of the scientific spirit, more than anything else, he quickly descends into a vortex of ruthlessness and cynicism.
He only manages to rediscover his humanity when he helps Akhilesh deal with his heartbreak, and manages to recover his 'soul' from the brink of infamy.
Along the way we see interesting exchanges between Akhilesh and Rahul, as their relationship evolves from a wary mistrust (often descending into irritability) to mutual respect and acknowledgement.
The end finds them, if a little chastened, looking ahead to life as independent, free-thinking individuals, assured of their own place and identity and yet sensitive to the environment around them.