[B]allad of Rustom that opened the Indian Competition at the 12th Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival is unconventional storytelling that catches the attention of the audience but doesn’t succeed in holding it for long. It uses the richness and beauty of the Indian countryside to enthrall but ends up serving a fablesque tale set in a never-never land that is hard to identify with.
Rustom is a small-time telephone lineman in an unnamed small town in India. The film is apparently shot in Coorg in Karnataka but there is nothing in the film to suggest the identity of the characters. Unfortunately in a country with such mind boggling diversity, universality (read homogeneity) of this kind doesn’t work. The characters in this town speak in chaste Hindi which must be out of use except in some parts of northern India. The film fails to strike a chord the moment one fails to place the cultural identity of the protagonist. However, the director seems to have a different take on this. In an interview she mentions, “While the film is rooted in the countryside, it is not region specific. Rustom could have an identity anywhere.”
Lineman Rustom is an honest government official who claims the moral high ground in the local telephone office with a staff of two including him. His boss—the telephone officer—who takes bribes for telephone connections and gets cozy with women chides him for giving him an inferiority complex regarding integrity. He also tries to curb the innovative spirit in Rustom who likes to indulge in small scientific experiments with his bicycle in his free time. Rustom is the unsung hero of our time when there seems to be no idealism or morality. But the cruel world which has no place for honesty or innovation must take its toll on Rustom someday. Besides, there is not much one learns about Rustom’s life throughout the 117 minutes of the film called Ballad of Rustom.
The film is full of exaggerated and romanticized scenes of ‘life in the countryside’: Rustom’s isolated and picture-postcard hut in a scenic location, boys wandering through the woods and sleeping by the stream, a girl pouring water on her bare arms and shoulders from a pail and a rundown printing press. The film unfolds as a string of scenes which pay tribute to the director’s fantastical vision of life in the countryside instead of a coherent narrative. It’s a place where people are fighting to get a landline telephone connection in their houses (no one has heard of a mobile phone yet!) and the State is systematically working to thwart creativity and imagination. The rich who use the countryside as their holiday home, despaired by the cultural and moral degeneration, are preparing to move to Europe while the naxalites are looting the corrupt telephone officer. Had this film been made twenty years ago, it would have seemed much more relevant than today.
Ballad of Rustom makes use of some loud and boisterous music that just doesn’t blend with the look and feel of the film. The film is leisurely paced and one sees a lot of panoramic shots. The cinematography draws attention towards itself by playing with light and darkness.
There is lot of verbosity in the film about everything ranging from God and religion, to science, philosophy and post-modernism. This is one film that is exaggerated and pretentious; and happy to be so.