The film opens with a funereal scene of an extended family in mourning over a double tragedy. It closes with a shockingly distressing finale. And nothing that happens in between provides the minutest glimmer of hope. Yet BA Pass is never less than riveting.
It is an unflinching, scalding tale that exposes the heart of darkness that lies under the serene, genteel veneer of middle class life in Delhi.
The downbeat drama, which marks cinematographer Ajay Bahl's directorial debut, plays out in a benighted world of dangerous liaisons and false moves where the privileged and powerful prey relentlessly and mercilessly on those that are weak and vulnerable.
This sharply written, smartly edited and evocatively shot film lands all its blows well-nigh perfectly, without having to overplay its hand.
BA Pass builds up its 'horror' tale bit by bit, tightening the screws with calm, calculated twists and turns as it inches towards its unsettling climax.
Adapted from Mohan Sikka's The Railway Aunty, a short story that was part of the Delhi Noir anthology published in 2009, the film is neither manipulatively 'bold' nor exploitatively 'erotic'. If anything, it is a deeply melancholic take on innocence sullied and brutalized.
In the bleak, amoral universe that the narrative is located in, vile treachery lurks at every bend.
All that seems to exist and thrive is runaway lust. Here, seduction is only a deadly, soul-destroying game whose rules are as perverse as the morally barren terrain that it is played on.
Love is not even a distant mirage in this emotionally arid urban outback, and the sex act is indulged in with clinical coldness, only as a means to exercising power over the meek, not as a pursuit of pleasure by a pair of equal partners.
A teenage boy (Shadab Kamal) loses both his parents in an accident. He is forced to leave his small town in Punjab and move to Delhi, to his aunt's unwelcoming home in a Paharganj railway officers' colony.
Manipulated by the wife (Shilpa Shukla) of his uncle's boss (Rajesh Sharma), he is drawn into the licentious lady's boudoir and from thence into male prostitution. He is quickly sucked into a bottomless abyss.
The boy needs money to fund his studies and his two sisters' stay in an orphanage. The sexual predator next door puts him in touch with other similarly inclined 'aunties' in the neighbourhood and he soon begins to earn enough to be able to dream of escape for himself and his hapless siblings.
His only friend is a cemetery caretaker (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) who he befriends as a result of a shared passion for chess.
The teenager adores Kasparov, his sparring partner swears by the older Karpov. But there is much else that separates the two.
BA Pass is filmed with a keen sense of space and mood. Deviating from the written text in the climactic passages and in expanding a few of the minor characters and adding a couple of new ones, Bahl creates a noir ambience with the minimum of fuss.
The director, who is also the film's cinematographer, employs elongated, disconcerting silences, furtive flurries in the shadows, and decrepit, constricted spaces over which the stench of death, decay and danger hang heavy.
Violence is a constant presence in this heartless world. The lovemaking is rough and leaves bruises and scratches that linger long enough on the body to singe the soul of the boy at the receiving end. And all this is always just one catastrophic step away from brutal blood-letting.
BA Pass is gritty and affecting because its characters, even the most minor ones, are vividly etched, believable people.
Whether it is the superficially amiable bua (Geeta Sharma) who barely tolerates her nephew or the dignified Suhasini (Deepti Naval in a cameo), a middle-aged woman who watches over her dying husband and, simply in order to survive, seeks the platonic company of young boys, everyone that Bahl conjures up is flesh and blood.
The acting lends coiled power to the story, with both Shilpa Shukla and Shadab Kamal holding their own all the way through this obviously difficult-to-navigate material.
Shukla invests the smouldering and scheming 'railway aunty' with an aura of mystery and ruthless impenetrability that is at once raw and refined. It is a performance marked by impressive skill.
Kamal immerses himself with unwavering conviction into the doubts and dilemmas of a young man forced to embrace adulthood before he is ready for its onset.
Dibyendu Bhattacharya, as a man who makes a living off the dead and hopes to break away from the graveyard one day, nails the nuances of the character to perfection.
BA Pass combines the bone-dry quality of a chiselled short story and the stark directness of a minimalist tragedy to deliver a taut, gripping film about the hell that a big city can be behind the bright neon lights and the living room glass cabinets stacked with flashy dolls.
Not to be missed.