It takes huge balls to make a film like Side A Side B. Frankly, I'm surprised that writer/director Sudhish Kamath can sit comfortably with what he must be packing between his legs in order to have conceived this little adventure of his. An eighty minute romantic musical, shot over the course of a forty-four train ride from Guwahati in India's northeast to Mumbai in the west, with 8 songs, all shot live with live sound on the train and only two performers and six crew, at most, to capture the whole thing, on two mobile phones.
Impossible, you say? Well, I thought so, too. But I'll be damned if the thing isn't absolutely charming, and a bit too relatable to anyone who has ever been in love.
Joel Gogoi (Rahul Rajkhowa) and Shivi (Shivranjani Singh) are school sweethearts who have been together for years, living up in the hills of northeastern India. This region is remote and of little concern to the rest of the country most of the time, and Shivi, having felt trapped for a while, has landed herself an internship at a company in big city Mumbai. Being the kind and doting boyfriend he is, Joel has arranged for them to take the train, a forty four hour journey, to Mumbai under the prestense that this way they could spend a few last hours together, and with their cat, the film's third cast member.
Before too long it becomes clear that the couple have very different ideas about what this new and unfamiliar separation means for their relationship. One thinks it's a chance to see what else is out there, not necessarily in terms of romance, but in terms of life experience; while the other sees it as a temporary disruption. This is the kind of couple who have been together long enough that they are able to not only finish each other's sentences, but to even predict the sentence before it's even left their partners lips. This predictablilty frightens Shivi, who wonders if this is all there is, but comforts Joel, who feels like his path is set.
The one thing they can agree on is that music is their way forward in the world, and as a result, much of their story is told through song. No, these aren't choreographed, spontaneous Bolylwood outbursts, instead, it's more like being privvy to private jam sessions where Joel and Shivi bare their souls to one another. The music tells a story, if sometimes only by its tone, and the fact that it was all recorded live on a moving train is almost too strange a thought to entertain, because it sounds great.
The songs aren't your typical Bollywood fare. There is no elaborate instrumentation, almost no percussion apart from the odd cajon tossed in, and no theatrics. It's just Joel, Shivi, and a guitar. I'd liken it more to the kind of music that populates films like John Carney's Once. The music sets a tone, the music tells the story, the characters serve the story, the music writes the characters.
While it would be easy to marvel at Side A Side B as an impressive achievement based on the intentional hardships under which it was made, I think their is more to be said for this film than that. Yes, it's amazing ot think that a film was shot under these conditions in less than two days with mobile phones. That's definitely impressive. However, if the movie sucks, no one is going to care. It just becomes another in a long line of dumb ideas that led to shitty films. Thankfully, Side A Side B is much more that just the means by which it was made, it's a real movie, it has real characters with real emotions, and by the end we feel that we've seen their journeys, both emotional and literal, and we're glad to have been there with them, even if it was a little bit painful sometimes.
Kamath put a lot of faith in his small team, starting with Rajkhowa and Singh as the leads and only two characters with dialogue in the entire film. Both performers are relative newcomers to acting, but they have a great rapport and their interactions feel very real. When you're the only two characters in the film and you have no choice but to be on camera for the entire runtime, you'd better be on your game, and these two definitely are.
Also worthy of praise is the team behind the music. Rahul and Shivranjani did their own performing in the film, but the songs were written by Sudeep Swaroop with lyrics by Kamath and film critic/filmmaker Raja Sen. The songs, though sometimes a bit overly silly, punctuate and complement the dialogue beautifully. Each is well thought out and expresses a particular emotion without being too obvious about its intentions, they're quite clever that way.
As I mentioned above, all the gusto and enthusiasm in the world doesn't necessarily make for a solid film, but in this case, Kamath comes out on top. Side A Side B is a charming story told by a solid script, confident but relaxed performers, and a set of balls most likely bigger than his brains for even attempting it. But I'm glad he did, Side A Side B is a winner, a film that takes place in a world and relationship that feels lived in, and that's no easy task even with a hundred days to shoot. I am impressed.