Overview: A young Indian couple work out the frayed ends of their deteriorating relationship while on a 44 hour train ride in this unconventional indie musical. 2017; Not Rated; 78 minutes.
Lemonade or Chai?: In Sudhish Kamath’s Side A Side B we see a curious variation of the recent movement in African-American culture to blur the line between music, music videos, and cinema. Although Michael Jackson may have popularized this blurring through extended music videos with self-contained stories which transitioned in and out of choreographed song-and-dance segments, this nascent art form reached a recent apex with Beyoncé’s 2016 “visual album” Lemonade, a 60-minute film comprised of 11 distinct music videos inspired by her personal life, the new Civil Rights movement, and the work of Somali poet Warsan Shire. Side A Side B is also made up of music videos. But unlike Lemonade, they all take place in one location, feature only two performers, and all come together to tell a single, cohesive narrative.
The film charts the self-destruction of the relationship between two lovers—Aiban “Joel” Gogoi (Rahul Rajkhowa), a politically radical sing-songwriter, and Shivi (Shivranjani Singh), a young woman moving to Bombay with dreams of a reliable corporate job at Google and of “finding herself”—during a 44-hour train ride from their home in Guwahati to the bustling metropolis of Mumbai. Heavily inspired by the Dogme 95 movement, the film was shot completely on location on the Kamakhya Express line between Guwahati and Mumbai with two iPhones. All the music was recorded live, being performed by the actors themselves. The songs are inspired by bits and pieces of their conversations—one impromptu number centers around the observations and habits of Shivi’s cat Llewyn (before you ask, yes, it’s an explicit homage to Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis). But as the train rumbles on and on through the countryside, the songs become angry and passive aggressive, targeting the lovers’ insecurities and emotional hang-ups. Kamath likened the film to “a 90s album” comprised of eight songs, an intro, and a bonus track. But long before we get to the end of the “album,” we realize that Gogoi and Shivi’s lives are incompatible. They know and we know that this will be their last train ride.
Stuck Inside of Mumbai with the Memphis Blues Again: The songs are all acoustic guitar numbers, but Rajkhowa demonstrates an impressive array of musical influences, although admittedly most of them are Western in origin: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Delta blues, even the percussive guitar tapping of Michael Hedges. The film’s Indian origins only truly come through in the music when Shivi—whose character is shown to still be learning the guitar—gets a crack at the odd number. (One of the film’s more delightful subtleties is how it’s Gogoi, the angry young man raging against capitalism and Coca-Cola, who seems most enchanted by Western music and culture.) The music is never boring; despite its stripped-down instrumentation it brims with the wide-eyed busker earnestness that elevates the songs and films of John Carney, another one of Kamath’s stated inspirations. I was told after the fact that one of the songs was a reprise, but I couldn’t tell while watching it. The music was too immediate and intimate.
As with so many high-concept wannabe indie darlings, Side A Side B is a mess. It’s only 78 minutes, and perhaps that’s for the best. By the one hour mark the film already begins to sag; we feel like we’ve watched Gogoi and Shivi have the same argument several times already. But even more than the repetitive nature of the story, the film sabotages itself somewhat by abandoning its Dogme 95 roots in favor of more traditional music videos edits during the musical numbers. Rajkhowa splices in shots of the couple cavorting through the jungle, kissing, cuddling, and so on. These shots eventually begin to blur together, causing the mind to glaze over after the umpteenth montage. In his attempt to inject the musical numbers with superficial emotion, Rajkhowa ends up kneecapping their effectiveness. One can’t help but long for Carney’s Once where the camera contentedly held the musicians in unbroken takes as they performed entire songs. One shot of Glen Hansard scream-singing in the empty nighttime streets of Dublin has more visceral power than any of the musical numbers in this film, as enjoyable as they might be.
Overall: It’s difficult to imagine how Side A Side B could have improved itself: its very messiness and spontaneity reflects the chaos of a collapsing relationship. It’s too brief and scattershot to leave much of an emotional impact. All that’s left is the beautiful music. I wonder if they’ll ever release a soundtrack?