Lens : A gripping rumination on the vices of the digital era
Cast: Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan, Anand Sami, Ashwathy Lal
5The days before the advent of the internet were simpler times. The only click that had the power to end lives was of a gun. Today though, it’s that of a much more potent instrument: the mouse, and it can destroy lives by the thousands. The only privacy any of us can truly claim to have is what we set on our browsers. The cameras—of the phones, of the webcams—are permanently trained on you. Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan’s Lens, which could have easily been at home as a chapter in Black Mirror, is a story about a man caught, literally, with his pants down. And despite threatening to occasionally, the film never becomes a sermon. Perhaps a scene of a man spitting on another is a bit of a stretch, but Lens rings surprisingly real for the most part.
Lens is a rumination on how content on the web, adult mainly, is consumed generally with a clean conscience—as though users at all times can vouch for the legality of it all. It makes you question that which is generally assumed to be normal. Are you cheating on your girlfriend if you consume adult content? No? How about if you were cybering with a stranger? What if you went one step further, and switched on your webcams but covered your face with a mask? What if you removed that mask? Where do you draw the line?
Arvind (played by Jayaprakash, who looks a bit like Attakathi Dinesh) is a bit of a porn addict. In one scene, it’s said that he’s watched one video more than 120 times. He also has a proclivity for cybering. Oh, and did I say he’s married? Yet, when he’s confronted, his defence is, “It’s not real!” Yohan (Anand Sami), the man who’s blackmailing him over Skype (gotta love these touches), retorts, “Why then are you scared about being exposed?” The film makes several references to how people’s decency is sometimes just a veil. Yohan, who philosophises quite a bit, says as much: “Mathavan munnadi manushan eppovum nadipaan.”
If all of this seems rather heavy, it’s because Lens is. It’s a slow examination of people’s proclivity to pry, to peep. A big reason why the film works is how relatable it all seems. Take Arvind’s house for instance. There are small touches that make him seem like a next-door neighbour, or gasp, someone you’re likely living with. The pigeons behind his air-conditioning. The thorns next to his laptop. The lone fish inside his aquarium. The space rings alive. I also loved that the interactions between Arvind and his wife in the film happen only through post-it notes and the occasional telephone conversation. I imagine it’s a commentary on many contemporary relationships developed and sustained over messaging apps. The director, as ever indicates this through a line from Yohan, who tells Arvind, “You’ve killed her in your imagination. She’s very much alive.”
In another less-sincere film, the inconsistent dubbing would have been a big dampener, but I didn’t mind it here. The dialogues seem spoken in English (perhaps with an eye on the festivals), and this makes the close-ups feel awkward, when you hear the lines in Tamil. Jayaprakash’s performance also feels wooden every now and then. But this refinement in acting, in a sense, also adds to the reality of the story. That’s the thing about good films. Even the bad qualities feel like they are making useful contributions.
The best scene of the film, one in which a woman tells her story over a YouTube video without any dialogues, is a fitting thumbnail for the ruminant portrait that is Lens. It’s hard not to reflect on the moral ambiguities brought forth by the digital era, as you walk out of the film. Yohan hints at this too: “Indha kaalathla nallavanaave irukkardhu kashtama irukkulla?” The more difficult quality is in differentiating the wrong from the right. Yohan, who likens today’s digital invasion to Satan, is probably not making too different a point from the one made in The Usual Suspects about the devil: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Perhaps that’s why Arvind never truly seems to believe he’s in the wrong.