“My generation,” says Figs, a curly haired wastrel, “A wretched blob of uppers and downers, chasing phantoms in shiny suits.” So begins the film M. Cream, a cinematic jewel of 2014 whose opening invokes Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, “I saw the best mind of my generation, destroyed by madness.” The film takes measure of a new generation of Desi youth and through the road trip movie genre, introduces India’s Beat Generation.
The question driving M Cream is will the open road lead to escapism or revelation? We meet four characters; Figs (played with droopy perfection by Imaad Shah), a selfish bourgie princess Maggie (sharp Auritra Gosh), the rugged photographer Niz (handsome Raaghav Chanana) and social justice crusader Jay (a snappy Ira Dubey). Each one is an archetype for how India’s middle class youth, navigate a nation rocked by new wealth, a growing class divide and populist struggle over the land.
The four pile into a jeep to share a journey but they are split by goals. Niz and Jay plan to do journalism. Maggie is just tagging along. And Figs, well, he just wants to get high. After his parents put the squeeze on him to go to college and get a job, he joins the trip in search of a mystical M Cream hash. Rumored to blast one to bliss, it becomes the symbol of escapism and the key to the film’s aesthetic.
The director, Agneya Singh, eschews Bollywood clichés of romantic melodrama, action violence or epic musical numbers. Working an indie-realist style, he shows casual sex, drug use and most importantly, moral ambiguity. On one side is Figs, a witty if spoiled hedonist, retreating into nihilism when confronted when real emotion. On the other is a sincere Jay who hides in political righteousness when confused or hurt. They trade insults and stomp off but always return, intrigued by each other’s intelligence. And slowly, they learn of the vulnerability hidden by their respective poses.
The road trip is an allegory for a spiritual journey. Every locale, they are forced to question their convictions or lack of them. At a Buddhist refuge, Jay’s faith in progress begins to crack. Later they meet an older hippie, Vishnu Das (a suave and sinister Barry John) who invites them to a midnight rave. Figs discovers the dark side of hedonism when Das tries to inject Maggie with heroin to assault her. Figs rescues Maggie but in the confusion, fights her boyfriend Niz. The four friends break up, leaving Figs and Jay to go to a valley where peasants fight a multi-national company threatening to cut the forest for a luxury hotel. They are welcomed by political organizer Marie Satre (a steely eyed Beatrice Ordeix) who brings them into the protest. Again, Figs and Jay are forced to see the price of one’s ideals when the police beat the villagers at a rally.
M Cream is a timely reflection of the forces ripping India apart. In the scene of villagers fighting for their land, we read the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency or the struggle to stop Coca-Cola from stealing water. In the sex and drug use, we see the generational conflict that surfaces in headlines of conservatives protesting Desi youth celebrating Valentine’s Day. The film is limited of course in how realistic it can be in portraying the grit of everyday life. It’s not a documentary. It’s a dramatic film but it becomes, in the end, a pilgrim’s journey. Director Singh, thankfully doesn’t offer answers but let’s the characters face the absence of certainty in an honest way.
Sitting around a fire, Jay and Figs take stock of their journey. Her political cause and his hedonism ended in shattered illusions. Snuggling close to him, Jay asks, “So what is it.” A sober, evolved Figs replies, “You know we’ve lost this battle I suppose. But you know as well as I do there’s a thousand people, fighting a thousand battles every single day, in this crazy country of ours.”