Chhaya and Arvind are living a borderline middle-class life in modern day India, but circumstances are sliding them lower. Arvind (Alekh Sangal) can’t catch a break at his job managing a construction crew where he’s consistently pressured by his boss to speed things up and do more with less. Sitting across from the balding man with the crude 9/11 sculpture on his desk Arvind is forced to swallow his pride and accept the mistreatment if he wants to hang on to his job. Chhaya (Rasika Dugal) meanwhile spends her days at home doing chores, shopping for groceries, and falling quickly and quietly into depression.
At least until an accident of questionable intervention leads her to find a sculpture of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, that “even God couldn’t make more beautiful.” The statue sits in a young boy’s shop where he claims to be the sculptor and sets a very high price for it, but the financial cost doesn’t phase her. She becomes convinced that her and her husband need the sculpture to make everything better, to make everything right, and to give her another chance at having children.
Her desire becomes an obsession, and soon the better life they were hoping for begins slipping through their fingers faster than they could have imagined. The result is an engaging and beautifully rendered drama about the dangers of compulsion and the lengths we’ll go to be happy.
“How many times have I told you not to piss the stones off?”
Kshay, or Corrode, presents American audiences with a world that’s both familiar and foreign. Chhaya and Arvind are far from destitute, but they still live a month to month existence. While clearly in love with each other there’s a growing divide between them as he works in the rational world to make things right and she falls prey to the potentially irrational desire to bring a life-size sculpture into their small apartment in order to solve all of their problems. Her blossoming madness is given dangerous room to grow when he heads out of town on a business trip meant to save their future, and the statue’s power over her leads to some dangerously rash and tragic decisions.
It’s easy to see hints of early David Lynch and Darren Aronofsky in writer/director Karan Gour’s debut although it never quite reaches the extremes of either. Gour and cinematographer Abhinay Khoparzi’s black and white film is crisp and natural-looking, but shadows and other less material pockets of darkness slowly grow in power alongside Chhaya’s obsession. They also use some interesting dream sequences, POV shots and camera tricks to convey the mix of madness and divinity including an early shot through Lakshmi’s eyes as “she” seemingly wills Chhaya into the shop. The possibility that there may be a larger hand at work early on is a tantalizing suggestion in regard to the all-consuming obsession that follows and the eventual outcome.
Gour and Khoparzi accomplish quite a bit on a shoestring budget, but the film’s greatest strength is Dugal’s performance as the slowly disintegrating Chhaya. She anchors the film physically as she’s in most scenes but also emotionally. Her struggle with their situation, her focused descent into madness, and her revelations regarding motherhood all ring powerfully true. “It’s from all this dullness that she gets her beauty,” Cchaya says at one point in reference to the unfinished sculpture of Lakshmi, but she could just as easily have been talking about herself.
While most of the film works there is one narrative move towards the end that just doesn’t feel right or natural. Arvind’s character is well established throughout for his grounded actions and reactions, but he’s allowed a major misstep that seems disingenuous and there solely for dramatic punch. That said, the scenes still find suspense and drama even if they do ring false, and it’s not nearly enough of a problem to waylay the film’s successes.
Kshay offers a sad and affecting reality countered with an atmosphere that hints at a deeper madness, all of it presented with stark but often stunning black and white images and a beautiful string-based score. A third act misstep prevents it from being a complete success, but it still manages to impress (and depress) on a miniscule budget. Foreign cinema fans will want to seek this one out as not only is it atypical to what most Americans expect from an Indian movie, but it’s also an eerie and disquieting film that’s both well made and beautifully acted.