The Catalyst - A Kannada short film by Vaishnavi Sundar based on a short story by Punjabi writer Kartar Singh Duggal

A poignant tale that questions morality and its changing relevance in the present times

The Catalyst, Movie Poster, A Short Film by Vaishnavi Sundar, Kannada Film
The Catalyst: A Short Film by Vaishnavi Sundar
The Catalyst is the second short film directed by the indie filmmaker Vaishnavi Sundar. Vaishnavi, whose debut venture ‘Pava’ continues to create a lot of buzz at various international film festivals, seems to have once again struck all the right cords with her new film, The Catalyst. Based on a short story by the late Punjabi writer Kartar Singh Duggal called “The Taxi Driver,” The Catalyst is a poignant tale revolving around an honest Bangalore-based auto rickshaw driver, his wife and their bright young son that questions morality and its changing relevance in the gruesome times we are forced to live in. Through the familial microcosm, we are presented with a sneak peek into the testing lives of the rickshaw drivers in India. The general opinion about the auto rickshaw drivers in India is far from being good. They are known to be particularly notorious for their roguish behavior, whimsical ways (when it comes to picking and dropping passengers) and for charging outrageous fares from their passengers. Vaishnavi, with her humanistic portrayal of the auto rickshaw drivers in The Catalyst, certainly makes us think to the point of making us question our own perception about the fraternity.
A classical dilemma is central to The Catalyst with ethics and morality on one end and the need to provide for one’s family on the other. The human lust for lucre has been a subject of many a great work of literature. It is seldom justified and often has terrible consequences. And, yet, the survival for existence is regarded as the most basic instinct of every living being. So can we really blame an individual for choosing survival over morality? In the Italian master filmmaker Vittorio De Sica’s magnum opus Bicycle Thieves (1948), we witness an honest but desperate man trying to steal another man’s bicycle when all his efforts to retrieve his own stolen bicycle fail. Can the man be dubbed immoral for trying to protect his family’s future? Obviously, there is no such thing as a black or white, only grey!  At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of individual perception as to what is right and what is not. In the Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), we see a rich man’s dilemma when he is forced to pay the ransom for the kidnapping of his driver’s son whom the kidnapper mistook for the rich man’s son. Kurosawa’s film too poses several ethical questions without giving any direct answers.

In The Catalyst, the auto rickshaw driver serendipitously finds in his possession a wallet containing a handsome sum of money. It belongs to one of the passengers. The driver faces a great dilemma. Should he return the wallet to the man who was careless enough to lose it in the first place? Or, should he use the money to pay off his debts? While his conscience doesn’t let him keep the money, his love for his family doesn’t allow him to part with it either. The Catalyst doesn’t feed us with any definitive answers. What Vaishnavi does offer is an ambiguous ending, thereby allowing the viewers to draw their own conclusions. In a guest article written for this blog, Vaishnavi explains the film in the following words: “The Catalyst is a story traversing moral dilemmas that create incongruence between good and bad. It tackles the perennial and perturbing financial inadequacy that blights the people at the bottom of the pyramid. A man’s attempt to find a bit of black or white in this interminably greying society! In short, this is a tale that concerns all of us—it just depends on which side we see it from.

The Catalyst is shot entirely in the Indian IT hub of Bangalore in less than a week for a very moderate budget. Vaishnavi, in the vein of neo-realistic filmmakers, uses a mix of professional actors and non-actors. To her credit, Vaishnavi elicits solid performances from the entire cast. Interestingly, she herself makes a brief appearance in the film. The direction is well complemented by the film’s editing, cinematography, and background music. In a nutshell, The Catalyst is a little gem of a film that looks all set to be doing rounds at the major international film festivals in the very near future. Despite the enormous constraints of time and resources, what Vaishnavi and team have delivered is nothing short of commendable. One can only imagine what the team would achieve in the absence of such constraints. This critic would certainly love to see Vaishnavi make a full length feature film made on the subject. Since the commercial filmmakers these days seem to mainly focus on the frivolous, the onus lies with the independent filmmakers to capture and contemplate upon what’s truly real. The Catalyst is one such honest attempt to demonstrate how complete and powerful a medium cinema actually is.

The Catalyst: Trailer (YouTube)

The Catalyst Promo

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About the Director - 

With a diverse career background of Marketing, Human Resources, Software, Adventure Sports and Advertising, Vaishnavi has now chosen to expand the time she has been giving to arts – ALL of it. A distinction in Business degree and stints in the corporate sector for over 6 years, she has now ventured into theatre and film full-time. As a performer with Theatre Nisha and Holy Cow performing arts group since 2008, she has been a part of more than a dozen productions, with over 40 shows in various parts of India and in the UK. She has assisted a handful of short films, voiced over for cartoons and has sung and danced all her life. She is a writer, and a lover of all things art!

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