Review: CAT STICKS from the Sundance Film Festival

By Josh Muchly

Upshot: Premiering at this year’s Sundance, CAT STICKS is a black and white film from India, the singular film from that country at the annual festival. Based in Calcutta and presented in Hindi, first-time writer/ director Ronny Sen centers the film on people towards the fringes of society — due to unfortunate happenstance and/or drug abuse — and their struggles.

Rundown: As CAT STICKS gains notoriety (which I predict will happen), expect to hear about the grittiness of the film. It exudes intimacy, almost as if it’s shouting, “This film could only be made by someone who lived through it!” 

Consequently, the film is brimming with passion. It comes across like Sen needed a creative outlet to process his own issues, and this was the final result; in essence, Sen is the one shouting, “I am the only person who could have made this!” The film is a pleasure to watch and a triumph for Sen. Bravo!

The film has a strong opening in which a few characters are faced with a decision between lightness and the dark; they come across a deserted airplane, which can act as a temporary haven, safe enough to host them while they got their fix (but not enough to keep them unafraid of the “snakes” hiding inside) or it can be a mechanism of flight and escape. They quickly began dancing upon it — the accomplishments of previous generations have become a stage for their entertainment — and, not long after, go inside to light up.

While none of us can change much about our own context (i.e. birthplace, family, genetics),  youth does allow the characters a figurative and literal decision: they can make themselves “kings” and soar above their context, or they can stay grounded, high only artificially, awaiting the coming flood. The opening masterfully sets the tone for the rest of the film in which a rainstorm continues unabated in the backdrop.

High-point: the warehouse scene. Two characters attempt to find a “good spot” on each other’s body for injecting their drug of choice; this quest leads them to take off all their clothes as they inspect every inch of the other and, eventually, turns into something like a dance, a choreographed ritual transforming them into priests performing (un)holy last rights. They are not lusting for one another; their shared lust for the needle brings them closer than any two lovers might become.

Moreover, the scene is shot indoors and in bright lighting — though darkness does surround this duo — so the audience has something like a respite from the rain, which gives us something in common with the characters on-screen. It’s an unforgettable moment.

Low-point: the lack of a definitive protagonist. While Sen brings the slums of Calcutta to life, it would have been ideal for him to create a central character who leads us through the story. For sure, this film has autobiographical elements; in that sense, director/writer Ronny Sen is the central character, and he’s guiding us through his past and his struggle with addiction; but not within the story exactly, more within the themes.

Indeed, a dedication from Sen reads:

“This is to call my dead friends back from the night.”

I sincerely hope Sen accomplishes that mission.

Score: 5/7

Post-script: The film is still going through the festival circuit, but keep an eye out for it!

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