There's always a certain buzz for me when I learn of a new made-in-Singapore film by a first time feature filmmaker. For one, there's this eager sense of curiosity wondering very much how the film would play out according to the premise and synopsis set, where expectations get laid out, and the audience ready to be wooed. It's not every week in this small, fledging industry of ours that we get a locally made film making its world premiere here, especially one which is independently financed and produced, with an extremely modest budget to make the best little film out there.
Madhav Mathur took up the challenge and plunged himself into the deep end of the pool wearing 3 major hats, as the writer, director and lead actor of The Insomniac. Undoubtedly the film ended up being a little raw on all three counts, though you cannot deny the sheer intense amount of effort that went into making this indie project. You can tell where Mathur was heading toward with the story, but I suppose being rough around the edges translated to a lack of ruthless exploitation of its potential. Being experimental in nature also helped to provide a rationale why some narrative aspects didn't gel as well as they should have.
Mathur plays Ali, a writer who has consciously decided to smoke and drink to pave the way for his relentless drive to finish his book by the 15th of September, at the expense of sleep. Into his 9th day of self-inflicted sleep deprivation, he begins to lose track of reality and fantasy, where others find him talking to himself, as he sees his own fictional characters from his creations, and various acquaintances from the past as well come alive in front of him.
Imagine having to deal with weapons wielding ex-girlfriends who have ganged up ala John Tucker Must Die, where one more girl using a nun-chucks would have made a fantastic homage to heroes in a half shell, or having an old teacher Mrs D (Shradha Nair) from school telling you that you're still not good enough. Or how about Sharon the shrink (Lishi Lee) periodically trying to get inside your brain, or being faced with an army of soldiers in which Zola (Jacob Thomas), the tortured revolutionary who tries to recruit you into his cause. And out of nowhere too are two English coppers (Mark Bartram and Joe Paterson) trying very hard to be funny, and a doctor you meet who's very much resembling the girl you have the hots for, with an obvious embedded metaphor that she's the one who holds the cure to all these madness?
While schizophrenia could have been Ali's ally in the writing of his book, even helping him in crafting dialogue, thanks to the Jekyll and Hyde, Angel and Demon type subconscious whisperers in Old Man Nas (Navneet Jagannathan) and geisha Lady in the Robe (Ipshita Bhattacharya) who never fail to put Ali down at every chance. As his writing aid, as Ali calls them, they provide at times much needed comic relief in the three realms the movie finds itself in – the actual, the stories Ali wrote being played out, and one where both worlds combine. You can tell Mathur's attempt at a seamless straddle across all realms, with the infusion of personal experience and probably frustration being translated for script and screen, but what came through was largely episodic pieces with little relation, making it seem very much like a stage play delivered scene by disparate scene.
Simply put, the film can be largely split into two acts, one his current lifestyle and writing process, and the other the descend into deranged madness in one night, all the way to breaking point. The premise was helped by the fact that almost the entire film was shot in the dead of the night, with little happening in the background, be it sans vehicular or human traffic, to provide that rather surreal feel of the fantastical world that slowly envelopes Ali's increasingly fragile mind. That world however seemed to drag for one too many scenes that overstayed their welcome, if not for an excellent soundtrack to distract you from the pacing.
As far as debut feature films go, this is still pretty much a decent effort. It's not too confusing, nor too cerebral, with little method to the mad randomness that got played out. Largely episodic with plenty of forgettable, throwaway characters, The Insomniac would probably have benefitted from a professional cast who would have owned and fleshed the characters in more convincing terms, though you cannot deny that this would largely serve as learning points for Mathur and his team, just like how Talking Cock the Movie was for filmmakers Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen before their award winning Singapore Dreaming.
A Q&A session with the filmmakers followed the screening of the film. From LtoR: Inez Maria (Sinema Old School), Madhav Mathur (Writer, Director, Actor), Siddesh Mukundan (Composer, Musician, Music Director) and Varun Viswanath (Producer, Editor, Visual Effects)
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