Ritwik Pareek’s “Dug Dug” asks how a culture might pour its anxieties into a supernatural mystery, and it answers in raucous fashion. After a motorcycle accident leaves a man dead in Rajasthan, India, his impounded bike begins mysteriously reappearing at the scene. Locks and chains don’t help, and local villagers are drawn to this oddity — as are numerous grifters — resulting in the founding of a bizarre new religion. The film is moderately effective as social satire, though it most succeeds as a dizzying, intoxicating romp, bursting at the seams with vivid detail and musical energy, and a fair few flourishes borrowed from big Hollywood names.
Indian cinema is no stranger to western influence, but rather than stealing a story wholesale, the debuting Pareek remixes numerous influences to create something completely Indian. “Groovy!” says one character (at least, in the subtitles), followed by numerous crash-zooms into the many locks, keys and safes meant to tie down the mischievous motorbike. It plays like something out of Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” horror-comedies, but despite Pareek working in a different genre — his supernatural element is a bit more ambiguous — he makes this visual emphasis work as part of his building mystery. The film is littered with other familiar hallmarks; a bit of Edgar Wright’s comedic framing here, a bit of Wes Anderson’s pastels and symmetry there (Pareek’s production company is even called Bottle Rocket Pictures), though while these inspirations are obvious and on-the-nose, they don’t overwhelm the movie.
In fact, the film’s opening minutes feel wholly unique, and harken the arrival of an idiosyncratic new independent voice. In his extended prologue, Pareek follows the middle-aged Thakur (Altaf Khan) on his drunken motorcycle ride through streets enveloped in night fog and a halogen wash. Thakur’s accident is where the plot begins, but the film’s first ten or fifteen minutes are dedicated to luring the viewer in with hypnotic imagery, poems about alcohol, prayers to the cosmos, and the weeping of an electric guitar. The accident occurs beneath a haunting painted billboard advertising an exotic magic act by one P.P. Sharma — a seeming send-up of famous Indian magician P.C. Sorcar — which sets the stage for the film’s mystical feel. Like the billboard, on which an assistant is sawed in half, Thakur’s fate is gory, and though Pareek spares us the visual details, its gurgling sounds are stomach-churning, and the incident feels all the more unsettling as Pareek’s camera remains transfixed on Sharma’s painted eyes as Thakur meets his fate. The sorcerer’s image stares down at the scene and imbues this otherwise unassuming roadside with ominous energy, presaging a blurring of lines between religion, superstition, and carefully crafted illusion.
After a trio of local policemen discovers Thakur’s bike back at the crime scene the next morning, it’s off to the races. Intrigue builds, as does the number of curious onlookers, as more people begin to hear rumors of the magical machine. Local religious and political figureheads are consulted about what this means, and about what people ought to do in response; how do you react to something unexplainable? In India, one of the world’s most religious nations (and one with widespread rural poverty), what usually follows is ritual in the hopes of good fortune. The 2006 sweet water incident in Mumbai comes to mind, during which thousands flocked to drink supposedly holy seawater which had turned mysteriously sweet — despite official warnings of gastrointestinal disease. The rituals in Pareek’s film aren’t quite so harmful, but they have an equally macabre quality, with pilgrims from far and wide washing the magic bike with bottles of booze, and referring to the recently dead Thakur as if he were a martyred saint.
Before long, the scene of the accident becomes a tourist spot rife with local balloon sellers, whose balloons grow surrealistically large as the film progresses, as if to match the head-spinning scale of the festivities. Just when you think this bike-centric religion is done engorging, it grows even more unthinkably humongous, until the surrounding landscape becomes unrecognizable. As more poor denizens make the trek in the hopes of being blessed, more rich folks take advantage of them, and religious symbols and political processions begin to blend together.
The film doesn’t usually look deeper than the texture of this premise. There are few (if any) moments when its desperate, downtrodden characters feel like they have much depth or agency, beyond Pareek’s generalized critique; the film treats the idea of vertical social strata as little more than a backdrop, whereas investigating it further, in this specific context, might have resulted in a more rounded and more jolting examination of the forces at play.
However, despite what feels like a missed opportunity at biting satire about the political and social tendrils of Indian religion, the film has an undeniably madcap energy. The filmmaking is often whimsical — the funniest moments are born of unexpected cuts and disorienting whip-pans — but just as often, it builds in energy and intensity, until it becomes as strange and alluring as the cult at its center.
Buoyed by a ceaseless, jazzy score (by Salvage Audio Collective), and a series of hard-hitting, up-tempo montages (by editor Bijith Bala), “Dug Dug” capture an ever-growing scale and moves with wild momentum, as it both observes sensationalism, and embodies it. When it finally takes a breath to look back at its own bigger picture, it feels completely worthwhile.
“Dug Dug” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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