In a voiceover during the film’s opening scene, as he stares emptily at his parents’ corpses before him, Mukesh, the protagonist of BA Pass describes their untimely deaths as a betrayal. It’s the first of many to come for this unsuspecting young boy, played by Shadab Kamal, who’s at the cusp of discovering that it’s every man for himself in the world outside.
Adapted from a short story by Mohan Sikka titled Railway Aunty, which appeared in the 2009 anthology Delhi Noir, the film traverses the neon-lit streets of Paharganj, even poking and probing its way into the city’s posh parts to ultimately lift the veil on the seemingly simple veneer of middle class life in Delhi.
Taken in reluctantly by his aunt after being orphaned, Mukesh seems destined to live a life of humiliation and quiet desperation, until one day he encounters bored housewife Sarika (Chak De India’s Shilpa Shukla), who seduces him Mrs Robinson-style. What starts off as an illicit affair quickly spirals into a dangerous web of prostitution and deceit, and we’re mostly transfixed by this tale of innocence lost and conscience compromised.
A little over ninety minutes, BA Pass is crisp and compelling because director Ajay Bahl, also the cinematographer of the film, reveals a firm grasp over the unflinching narrative. With minimal flourish or show-off, Bahl creates a moody noir that is at once irresistible. Yet, where the film slips is in the superficial, surface-level manner in which it addresses macro themes like empty marriages, sexual power games, and the frustration caused by extreme poverty.
It doesn’t help either that Shadab Kamal delivers a one-note performance as Mukesh, turning him into a singularly uninteresting fellow, and seldom allowing us a glimpse into his heart. Shilpa Shukla, as the ravenous cougar, is inscrutable throughout…but that approach works for her character, whose motives must remain sketchy till the end. The pair is surrounded by good actors in bit roles, including Geeta Sharma as Mukesh’s unwelcoming aunt, Dibyendu Chatterjee as a chess-loving undertaker, and Rajesh Sharma as an angry husband who must take charge.
BA Pass exposes a cold, dark, and bleak universe that is in equal measure grotesque and intriguing. Bahl creates the right mood, but doesn’t leave you with much to think about when it’s all over. Still I’m going with three out of five. Not perfect, but nicely done.