Directed by Chandra Duvvuri | Review by Prarthana Mitra
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]handra Duvvuri’s debut feature 50 Days tells the story of an Indian teenager who finds himself on the precipice (quite literally) in the opening scene itself. As we learn later, he is a victim who has fallen prey to the Blue Whale Challenge. An infamous internet prank like the ones on 4chan spread like wildfire last year over social media and claimed the lives of many. It is this “game”—played over 50 days—which serves as the backdrop and drives the principal action in the film. Duvvuri deftly zooms in on one boy to depict the origins of Blue Whale and the toll it takes on adolescents who don’t know any better and are inadvertently drawn to the dark web of cyberbullying.
The narrative and perspective is anchored in the boy’s experience and centered on certain social mores. The events that follow are recounted from the third person omniscient POV of the young protagonist Dhruv (played by Dhruv Rattala)—a precocious Indian teenager from an affluent diasporic family who is into avid gaming and seems to have it together.
In essence, 50 Days is a thriller with an underlying social cause and a gnawing sense of running out of time. Its desire to inform and substantiate facts with fiction is evident from the presentation of real statistics at the very outset. But the film does not bear the look and feel of a documentary or neo-realist cinema, because that is perhaps not Duvvuri’s point.
While the visuals are stark and impressive for a one-man crew (the film is written, shot, edited and produced by Duvvuri, a software professional after he attended a filmmaking workshop), shot divisions and camera work nonetheless bear an uncanny similarity to mumblecore films. Think low budget films by Noah Baumbach and Joe Swanberg, strictly in terms of visual treatment, of course.
In terms of content and action, the film is a gritty and riveting watch, often running the risk of taking its seriousness for granted. Chandra Duvvuri’s script is minimal, lucid and crisp, as a lot of the communication happens in the form of on-screen text, be it statistics at the start, or Facebook messages during the challenges. Getting through the phases of the game accounts for more than half the film.
But for the unintended cuts and rushed pace, the movie could have resembled any of the original Indian web content being flung around like cake today. Excessive use of song and music reverses the solemn effect that a thriller of this sort usually demands. Art direction and production design, meanwhile, remains quite consistent, compatible and natural, and helps complement the protagonist’s psyche with his immediate space.
In the second half of the film, as Dhruv’s actions acquire more dire proportions, the film picks up its pace, but the dialogue remains hammy. The sound design, especially with the preponderance of a Babadook-esque spooky theme, does not help either. Despite these shortcomings, it is thrilling to follow Dhruv on his dangerous and destructive journey from the time he discovers the Blue Whale Challenge and follows through with the absurd tasks unquestioningly. If the film lacks technical expertise, it is well-supplemented with a sympathetic treatment, not only of Dhruv but his parents as well.
Despite the dramatic and sentimental aspect, especially in the final scene, what the film desperately lacks is a moral axis — in the absence of an effort to explore why he indulges in the game in the first place.
Viewers are left watching a skillful adaptation of a true crime news report at best because Duvvuri does not entirely explore Dhruv’s motivation except sermonising in one scene, through his school teacher, that being on the internet too much can have a fatal effect.
Without a psychological backstory driving his actions, Ruttala nevertheless does a great job in acting freely and playing his part as the nonchalant teenager, although the other members of the cast get theatrically one-dimensional at times. There is minimal scope for them to explore different facets of their relationship with Dhruv, given the linear and structured treatment of the issue.
This is here I am reminded of a tenet of poetic cinema: a metaphorical element in narrativizing a real event often elevates the cinematic experience. That said, Duvvuri has done the best he could with the resources, and his earnest effort is cathartic for victims and commendable by viewers.
Prarthana is presently in between odd jobs and obtaining her master’s degree in literature. She loves modern poetry and meditative cinema. Based out of Calcutta, Prarthana observes people, football, films and enjoys writing about all three. Of late, she relates to Frank Ocean’s music. Her writing experience consists of writing for various sites such as Try Cinema, The Indian Economist, Doing The Rondo, Saintbrush and various academic journals.