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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