Cat Sticks (2019)

Cat Sticks first published by EyeforFilm

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

After this text that suggests first-time writer/director Ronny Sen has a similarly personal relationship to his material as Philip K. Dick had to his A Scanner Darkly, and after title credits accompanied by abstractly animated rainfall, Cat Sticks begins with a grounded bird. For, we see, in a field (and in wide shot), an abandoned passenger plane, where three men – Pablo (Rahul Dutta), Ronnie (Sumeet Thakur) and Deshik (Saurabh Sarasawat) – seek shelter so that they can smoke some ‘brown sugar’ together without getting soaked. This striking, surreal setting serves as an apt metaphor for the situation of these and other characters in the film, all wanting to fly high, but getting nowhere fast, as they sit about in their own ruin.

Unfolding over one long dark night in West Bengal, Cat Sticks is an episodic ensemble piece whose different stories do not so much criss-cross as occasionally meander into one another’s paths as aimlessly as its hapless, hopeless characters. Heroin addicts one and all, they spend their time drifting in search of that elusive fix, stealing or selling themselves for cash, and, once under the influence, going around in circles, both verbal and spatial, on a looping arc of self-destruction. This is not exactly standard fare for Indian cinema – and that distance is carefully marked by one scene where we see Biplab (Raja Chakravorty) smoking in front of his young son in a dingy home, even as a touristy poster of the Taj Mahal ironically decorates the wall behind, and a television discussion audible in the background concerns what it takes to realise one’s dreams and ascend to movie stardom. Not long afterwards, that same man will sneak out of the house, snort heroin, dress himself as a woman and let himself be taken from behind by a trucker in the hope of getting money for the next score. Another junkie, Byang (Tanmay Dhanania), is seeing aspirant actress Orna (Sreejita Mitra), but Orna knows that her interests will be better served by sleeping with her film director – so Byang can only come so close to Bollywood, as it were, in what is a strictly asymptotic relationship that negotiates and reflects the gulf between this film and classic, or even just more conventional, Indian cinema. 

Yet for all its lowlife wallowing in metaphorical (and in the end literal) shit, Cat Sticks is beautiful. Sen is a well-established photographer with a number of published collections under his belt, so it is unsurprising that he should have a real eye for striking imagery, ensuring that all this rainswept squalor comes with a disorientingly dreamy poetic. Working with his DP Shreya Dev Dube, Sen transforms the rainy backstreets of Kolkota into a noirish monochrome world of deep shadows and occasional light. In one sequence, in a dilapidated building, as Byang and his friend Potol (Sounak Kindu) search for viable veins in the half light, their desperate struggle to inject themselves is aestheticised as an intense (and increasingly graphic) homoerotic dance. 

Another subplot – for this is all circular subplot with no centre – sees three addicts, Tamanna (Joyraj Bhattacharya), Toto (Kalpan Mitra) and Gere (Soumyajit Majumdar), ‘waiting for the man’, but ending up with a corpse. Death is where all these stories implicitly end – and while near the end the possibility of hope and redemption is offered as one tubercular character checks himself in for rehab, we know that this is a revolving door, and that he himself has been there before. This is a humane, if depressing, depiction of addiction’s toll – and shows a side of India you just do not see very often at the cinema. Like the brand of matches after which it is named, Cat Sticks casts a little light into this demimonde of darkness.

© Anton Bitel