Toronto 2021 Review: DUG DUG Offers Lessons In Escalation
The musical montage is alive and well in Dug Dug, a profoundly amusing chronicle of the birth of a new religion in the rural backwater of India. The camera work, framing, whip panning, (crash) zooming, and often lingering for an extra beat, itself does the lions share of comedic heavy lifting. A kind of sophisticated visual comedy brings to mind French absurdist Quentin Dupieux, and pop maestro Edgar Wright.
If spirituality is a kind of mass spell on its audience, then it has a lot in common with cinema (for the record, my church), and Dug Dug is a testament to this comparison. Ritwik Pareek’s debut film is a masterclass in visual storytelling.
His sensibility on how long is the exact time to hold a scene for maximum effect, or when to razzle-dazzle with sensory overload, or when to insert a recurring visual metaphor. Take for instance the opening scene where Thakur, our soon to be holy martyr, leaves a roadside bar drunk and in the process of getting stoned before stumbling to his small motorcycle to drive home. We know something bad is going to happen, Thakur is weaving all over the road as he offers a stoner's voiceover on metaphysics; drowning in the emptiness of the modern world and all that. Pareek keeps the scene going and going, like Hitchcock’s bomb that never goes off. The conclusion is both surprising and inevitable.
But things are just getting started.
His impounded motorcycle, scooped by the local, slacking, constabulary, mysteriously returns to the ‘scene’ under the watchful eye of an Amazing Zoltar-esque Billboard, as well as the deadpan gaze turbaned and smoking shepherd. The police pick it up several times, lock it, and remove the petrol, but there it is in the next morning. It is declared a miracle, and before you can say, Hallelujah!, a small crowd is making offerings to a shrine built around the motorbike. At this point, it is worth mentioning that this is a true story, even if it is given wide dramatic license for comedic effect.
I have not seen a film in a while that does escalation as effectively as this since the final act of Japanese ghost story, It Comes, or perhaps the opening act of Bill Murray’s criminally underrated satire Quick Change. With Dug Dug, it is the entire point, and executed with zeal. Once the ‘circus’ starts, visualized throughout the film by a roadside vendor inflating a gigantic pink and blue balloon, as if to ask to the audience, how big can this show go before it pops? We debate whether the conclusion to the film delivers on the ever inflating promise, but hey, with most things, it is the journey not the destination.
Fun fact: "Dug Dug" is the noise that a motorbike makes as it idles, so have a little faith.
The various politicians, priests, hustlers, and workers, meanwhile, find the motivation and solutions their problems, make their career, or simply make hey from the donation box, by barnacling themselves to the expanding shrine to Saint Thakur. Yes, it is broad caricature of the worst aspects of spirituality and religion, but it is also very, very funny. Things are balanced by one of the original police officers who scoffs at what this tiny motorcycle has wrought. He is slowly worn down by his wife to make a donation to aid them both with her lack of pregnancy, despite doctors and other gurus failing in the past. A small story to inject a specific human element into an ever-increasing farce, puts things into perspective, or at very least offers an narrative object for scale.
Something amazing is going on in India in terms of formal experimentation in a pop-entertainment fashion. Jallikattu in 2019 was a bloody and fiery wake-up call. Dug Dug answers that call attired with pink and blue ribbons, drunk and high on the power of worship and cinema.