Cult cinema

Lessons in controlled madness from Pankaj Advani’s ‘Urf Professor'

As far as opening shots go, Pankaj Advani’s Urf Professor nails it — bullock carts bearing satellite dishes go backwards in motion, simultaneously channeling Jean Cocteau’s Orphee and sending up grand claims of technological progress and sophistication.

Advani’s reputation for subverting genre and poking fun at authority is in full flow in this soaked-in-pulp rendition of a Pulp Fiction universe overrun by hitmen and their targets. The 2000 movie inaugurates its multi-layered narrative with a newly-wed man entering the room where his bride awaits him and proceeding to impress her with his catalogue of sexual conquests. His wife responds with an even bigger catalogue, accompanied by graphic descriptions of the sexual prowess of her lovers.

The horrified husband wants his wanton wife dead, so he hires a hitman, the titular Professor. The surreal turn of events include identity mix-ups, a winning lottery ticket worth Rs two crore, a pair of small-time thieves, a funeral parlour owner, an aspiring actor, and a doctor with an ability to be at the right place at the right time.

Urf Professor will get a public airing at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, where it is being shown under a section titled ‘Experiments in Film Form.’ Curated by Avijit Mukul Kishore and Rohan Shivkumar, the selection examines movies and documentaries that reinvent the rules and conventions of cinematic narrative. Advani is usually identified as a surreal comedy expert and pastiche artist, but Kishore and Shivkumar want to recontextualise him as an exponent of avant-garde filmmaking. The list includes Derek Jarman’s Blue, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, and Films Division employee SNS Sastry’s acclaimed documentaries. Where does Advani fit in?

For his use of “narrative and archetype as intrinsic formal elements”, Kishore said. Urf Professor, “like much of Pankaj Advani’s work, is about questioning and destroying the idea of conventional narrative, the archetypal character and the audience’s expectations of both”, explained Kishore, a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer who most recently shot An Old Dog’s Diary, about painter FN Souza. “His choice of a ‘tacky’ film form is deliberate and extremely skilled,” Kishore added.

Advani made only four films during a short life. He died in 2010 at the age of 45. A graduate of MS University, where he studied painting, and the Film and Television Institute of India, where he trained in editing, Advani wrote plays and directed spoofy promos for Channel [V] before embarking on a movie career. He co-wrote Kundan Shah’s Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, released in 1993, and it might have seemed at the time that Advani was the heir apparent to Shah’s absurdist bent, best expressed in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro in 1983.

Advani’s own sensibilities proved to be more far-out and less decorous than his supposed mentor’s. Advani’s upside-down worldview was first expressed in Sunday. Subversion is the name of the game here: this hour-long parody of typical children’s films (all characters yell at the top of their voices for one thing) has been produced by the Children’s Film Society of India. The simple plot – a mother and son go to the station to pick up the father – becomes an excuse to play with logic, reason and linearity. Urf Professor’s wackiness emanates from some of the most stunted adults in the universe. The cast of characters, including Manoj Pahwa, Yashpal Sharma, Shri Vallabh Vyas, Sharman Joshi and Antara Mali, deliver a mishmash of pratfall-based humour and satire of Hindi movie conventions. Advani reserves his greatest feints for propriety and politesse. In keeping with the dictum that rules are meant to be flouted, some of the humour is rank slapstick, while other bits are sophisticated without overtly appearing so. Everything is tightly controlled.

Advani also tried his hand at horror with Cape Karma before making his best-known movie. Although Sankat City is less anarchic than Urf Professor, it is also a very whacky adventure involving a bunch of characters and a suitcase full of money.

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Sankat City was released in 2009, and it remains Advani’s most mainstream and accessible work. While Sunday and Sankat City are also available on DVD, cinephiles curious about Cape Karma and Urf Professor have to depend on the munificence of the internet. In any case, Advani’s work anticipates the rise of uncensored direct-to-internet cinema. Like other movie trends, such as profanity, pastiche, and films about films, Advani was ahead of both queue and curve.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.