Ronny Sen’s ‘Cat Sticks’: A Powerful Film on Kolkata’s Brown Sugar Addicts

Ronny Sen’s Cat Sticks is not a film on addiction but a 90-minute attempt to bring back those caught in the clutches of a nightly demise.

The entirety of the film, which was recently shown at the 25th Kolkata International Film Festival, is strewn together by episodic snippets into the lives of patakhors, a common Bengali term for brown sugar addicts, who seek refuge in abandoned houses and construction sites each night while the rest of the city sleeps.

Winner at the Slamdance Film Festival and screened world over, the film brings to life the underbelly of the ‘City of Joy’ and its mad hustle for a powdered substance.

The drug, requiring “a closed space where there is not too much light and no fear of the powder blowing away requires a uniform source of heat which is provided by wax matchsticks”, is the reason why ‘junkie dens’ are often lined with small lit candles, explained director Ronny Sen.

Cat sticks’ is one such brand of matches, as shown in the film in a particular sequence.

Shreya Dev Dube, the director of photography, liberally plays with chiaroscuro in every scene to bring out nuances in monochrome that would perhaps have looked anomalous in colour.

As a member of the audience, Arunava Banerjee, a postgraduate student of Jadavpur University, said: “It’s an important film as it shows a side of Kolkata which is not known to most residents. The camera work is also exceptional.”

There is not one single protagonist in the film, but several ostracised characters who live out their lives in concentric circles, from their homes to trying to get their next fix – each playing their part in anti-hero sequences.

Sen has no self-righteous ambition to manifest in the guise of a writer-director in his debut, nor no moral obligation to critique a way of life laced with hallucinatory destitution; he simply wanted to bring to the notice of the majoritarian bhadrolok that there exists a section of society for whom the search for empty buildings is an essential aspect of life.

“I grew up with these people and the stories in the film are of them. It’s not my job to uphold objective reality, but to portray the chase of the euphoria one experienced in the beginning of one’s addiction and the sense of failing repeatedly to feel it again, with cinematic poetry. The process suddenly leaves them broke with no job; their families do not talk to them anymore.

For the ones who do, the stories are different… Once a boy kept asking his mother for drug money while she repeatedly refused and left the house to go to the market. The boy followed her and to avoid him, she crossed the road in a hurry, got run over and died. That guy is clean now, but is permanently damaged. Again, a girl came home so high that she could barely hear what her ailing mother was saying to her and that very night, she passed away,” Sen said.

Also read: Outside Delhi’s Parties, An Even Darker Side to Drugs

When William Burroughs in his book Junky wrote, “Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life,” he was describing his own life as a junkie in 1950s America and incidentally summarised the microcosmic epidemic which took over Kolkata in the early 2000s – the period chosen by Sen for his film.

Set over one rainy night, the film shows the see-sawing between bouts of addiction, rehabilitation, momentary freedom from one’s own destructive thoughts only to relapse into the world of substance abuse. It depicts thieving to sustain the habit and the attempts to hide it all from the prying judgmental eyes of society.

“During the last show, at least 150 recovering addicts had come to watch. If for example I had said, ‘Hi my name is Ronny and I am a recovering addict’, you would hear a distinct ‘Hi Ronny’ from within the audience”, Ronny told LiveWire.

Biplab, a transvestite sex worker who uses in a worn down factory as well as at home in front of his son.

In the film, sex worker Biplab leads a double role – as a father who smokes up while his son nonchalantly watches TV and eats, and as a trans person who falls into the arms of brown sugar in a worn-down factory – before being exploited by a truck driver whom he calls Raja and two middle-aged men Tamanna Bhai and Gere Bappa who accompany first-year Presidency College student Toto who relapsed after his time in rehab only to get entwined in an accidental murder while trying to score.

Three users from varied backgrounds named Deshik, Pablo and Ronnie smoke up in an abandoned Kingfisher aeroplane, the “fisher” subtly blurred out. Deshik, a young addict, who uses the drug in the bathroom right after getting home, imagines his father finding his stash and beating him up – embodying the perfect dichotomy between an addict’s life and the alienation from his family. His role is reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of teenage addict Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries (1995).

“There are addictive tendencies in all of us, even if it is not to a particular substance. Ronny’s empathy towards all the characters helped us. I tried to embed the bathroom scene into my muscle memory because addicts have a routine. Also, they do not have much of an appetite and mostly puke whatever they eat, something which I had to do in a scene,” said Saurabh Saraswat, who plays Deshik in the film.

The visceral need for the next hit which had to be enacted by actors came about through a strict regime of trying to survive like a junkie – from eating two eggs and a bowl of daal a day, to not taking showers and wearing the same clothes for days on end, living on a limited Rs 50 a day and walking everywhere instead of taking public transport. The team even went to rehabilitation centres where workshops were being conducted for recovering addicts.

Kalpan Mitra, who plays Toto, said, “We had to embody the life of an addict as close as possible without becoming one ourselves.”

Orna, a non-user, has her own set of priorities far removed from her junkie boyfriend, Byang. The relationship between two users has been explored before in movies like Requiem for a Dream (2000)  and Candy (2006), so depicting the bond between an addict and his sober partner is far from the norm.

The naked choreographed sequence between Potol and Byang as they search for a vein in each other’s bodies.

The one scene which stood out from the rest of the film is a naked choreographed sequence imbued with homoerotic potential between Byang and Potol, who try to search for a vein in each other’s body to inject the drug.

Tanmay Dhanania, who plays Byang, told LiveWire, “After repeated use, the veins in an addict’s body collapse and the last ones remaining are in the genitals which is why the nakedness in the sequence. It was choreographed by Ronny’s friend who was once a user and who used to haunt cemeteries with his using partner and look for veins all over. Shreya Dube did the rest with her camera,.”

Heath Ledger’s iconic character in Candy, a movie about a couple hooked on heroin, says at the end when provoked to relapse:

“If you’re given a reprieve, I think it’s good to remember just how thin it is.”

For 40-year-old recovering addict Rishi, who has been clean for 15 years, watching Cat Sticks took him back.

“The struggle of getting a regular fix was a visual reminder of the social tension, isolation and regret that invaded the lives of junkies during the 90s we knew. I had goosebumps because I recalled how powerful addiction was for me and how it controlled my life back then,” he said.

Tannistha Sinha has just completed her Master’s in English Literature from Jadavpur University.

Image courtesy for all photos: Taken from the official Instagram page of Cat Sticks with permission.