It’s A Work Of Fiction
8 Nov 2021
Sayan Biswas, Rocky Singh, Subinoy Ganguly
In 1960, Indian director Satyajit Ray released Devi, a historical drama about a devotee of the goddess Kali. The film garnered harsh criticism for its apparent anti-religious sentiment. In a 1989 interview with Pierre Andre Boutang, Ray defended his work, claiming it criticised dogmatism, not general religious belief. He called the critics ‘stupid’ and the general film audience ‘backward’ and ‘unsophisticated.’ This interview opens Junayed Alavi’s film It’s a Work of Fiction, a weirdly fascinating short about a group of filmmakers struggling to produce work under threat of boycotts and censorship. With Ray’s words at the start, and a dedication to young filmmaker Shady Habash (who was arrested and later died after directing a music video that mocked Egypt’s president) at the end, it is abundantly clear where Alavi stands in the debate.
On his way into work, Suman receives a call summoning him to an afternoon meeting. Upon arrival, he discovers that his filmmaking friends are deep in discussion about their next project. Worrying that their film will either be virulently criticised on social media or banned by the government (or both), they concoct a plan to get around the strict rules. Will their allegorical science fiction film escape backlash, or will this too fall victim to harsh censorship?
Firstly, it must be stated that this is an obviously low-budget affair. This is not to the film’s detriment – at least, not completely. The sound design sticks out as a negative, from diegetic sound being too loud or too quiet, to the painfully obvious dubbing of the actors’ lines. Furthermore, Tyler DeTulleo’s score is misplaced, and more often than not feels like a collection of pieces from a stock music provider. Thankfully, the original song ‘Make a Comeback!’ by Keiran Rhodes, which plays at the beginning and again towards the end, is much more successful. Otherwise, the mostly black and white cinematography by Puspen Mazumder works in the film’s favour, and while one or two scenes would have benefitted from better lighting, in general, the film looks good.
Of course, there is a political debate at the heart of Alavi’s film. On the one hand, there is the issue of censorship. The film opens with warnings about smoking and alcohol consumption, and later when the characters smoke, a message reminding us that “Smoking is injurious to health” appears. On the other, there is the discussion about cinema as an art form. These men are passionate about cinema, convinced that making a good film is the best way to effect change. In a discussion about Muslim representation Nikhil, the most hot-headed of the group, expresses an Islamophobic view that is immediately challenged by the others. It would have been great to have more of these discussions. The sole female character, Menoka, is mocked for acting in ‘cringe’ films – that is, family dramas that, according to these men, have no political or artistic merit. This discussion – what kind of art has value and what kind does not – is one that would have been great to explore; and it goes without saying that the only female character having her work and contributions diminished by her male colleagues would have been worth unpacking.
Despite its shortcomings, there is something undoubtedly compelling about It’s a Work of Fiction. Most of the film is comprised of a group of men (and one woman, briefly) talking to each other, sharing their ideas and, every now and then, arguing over them. These scenes are the strongest. A misplaced montage with a Reservoir Dogs reference detracts from what is, in the end, quite an interesting piece.