Image was shared on Instagram. (courtesy: _ishan_shukla)
A bravura parable built around a range of zany ideas and marked by dazzling visual flair and precision, Schirkoa – In Lies We Trust is an animation film of stunning power. It is as potent as cinema as it is pertinent as commentary.
The 103-minute film combines 3D mo-cap and 2D techniques to achieve a magical meld of dystopian noir elements, flights of sci-fi fantasy and urgent contemporary concerns. The impeccably crafted, compelling film is punky, pulpy and profane. It is at the same time profound, political and philosophical.
Written, designed and directed by debutant Ishan Shukla, the film, based on his much-awarded 2016 short fiction Schirkoa, sustains the balance between conflicting impulses without missing a beat.
Schirkoa – In Lies We Trust, which had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2024 on Sunday, represents a big step forward for Indian animation.
Free from the excesses and limitations of the Bollywood idiom and the devices of mythological epics, it stylishly juggles many provocative notions – the finiteness of resistance as a fuel for art, the irrelevance of rebels in a perfect world, sex as an antidote to thoughts of death, fear-mongering as a tool of oppression and much else - and sprinkles them across an over-arching tale of an oppressed people seeking deliverance.
Remarkably inventive and wide-ranging with its colour palette, its filming technique and its characters, Schirkoa – In Lies We Trust does not hinge on a cocksure male protagonist fighting for the vulnerable. The hero is hobbled by grave doubts as he looks for a way out of a world that deprives him of freedom of thought and action. He hurtles into situations and rarely so of his own volition.
The film scales a creative high that no Indian animated feature has ever come within striking distance of. It yanks open a door and forays into a domain where art, imagination and innovation coalesce to perfection and yield a highly entertaining ride.
The principal voice cast – Golshifteh Farahani, Asia Argento, Soko, King Khan, John Sutton and Denzil Smith – is to die for. It is supported by guest stars Lav Diaz, Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap, Shekhar Kapur, Piyush Mishra and Gaspar Noe.
Sneha Khanwalkar's standout background score captures the ever-changing moods of a film that ranges from the sombre and melancholic to the riotous and rebellious.
The soundtrack is embellished with delightfully evocative songs, a couple of which are composed and performed by Khanwalkar (who also lends her voice to a tertiary character) with several others being contributed by King Khan and his band.
On one level, Schirkoa – In Lies We Trust explores the pitfalls of unquestioning faith in false gods and the hysterical conformity that it demands. It probes the nature of autocracy and the fight against indoctrination and the brutal enforcement of repressive laws.
The film pans out in a society trapped in a system that dreads diversity. Citizens are ordained by law to wear paper bags over their heads to erase their differences. “To be alike is the way of life,” is an axiom that is repeatedly drilled into them.
The hero, 197A (Shahbaz Sarwar and Tibu Fortes, the film's two debuting actors) – residents of the city of Schirkoa have no names – is a new council member in love with 242B (Farahani), who has an audacious plan. She hopes to escape the nightmare. She pleads with her boyfriend to join her.
The male protagonist, irresolute and tentative, decides to stay on and be co-opted. The decision sparks a chain of events that leads him into another realm and sharpens his awareness of the possibilities that lie yonder.
What lies beyond the overly regulated society that 197A and his ilk inhabit moves to the centre of the action as Schirkoa, on the back of its protagonist, travels into a new reality. The music, tone and texture of the film, as well as the hero's appearance and voice, undergo transformations as the backdrop changes.
The government stokes fear of dangerous immigrants camping at the borders. A myth of a city of evil refugees is spread to keep Schirkoans in check. Repeated announcements (the voice of Karan Johar) remind the people of the need to abide by Schirkoa's “golden trio – Safety, Sanity and Sanctity” for the well-being of the land.
The insides of a bus that 242B wants to board on her way out of Schirkoa is a colourful and chaotic world peopled by oddballs and rebels, a sharp contrast to the dull hues that the browbeaten folks of Schirkoa sport. One of the bus passengers is an astrologer (Piyush Mishra) who makes predictions in flowery Hindi verse.
The city of Konthaqa, where a mermaid named Lies (Asia Argento) runs the show and a wacky impresario, Mord (King Khan), assembles performers for a musical contest, is no less rambunctious.
Not that the Schirkoans – presented largely as a nebulous entity in perpetually aimless movement – are wholly unaware of what lies beyond the boundaries of their city and what lies are being perpetuated to keep them in line.
Agitated students hold demonstrations, street protests erupt, a mysterious girl (Soko) prowls in the shadows, and the city's safety personnel swing into action with their guns and batons.
The rumours about a mythical land of the free inhabited by people referred to as Anomalies are circulated by the ruling clique with an eye on extracting political gains, but as the whisper campaign reaches a crescendo, the ploy backfires and the air is filled with talk of rebellion.
The entertaining, edgy allegory about power, suppression of dissent and the people's yearning for personal freedom pulsates with energy. The film, transports the audience into a fantastical universe where burning issues need urgent attention and provoke simmering discontent.
Schirkoa – In Lies We Trust draws its power primarily from a storyline that springs many a surprise in terms of its technology and the use it puts it to. It is shot in a video game engine that enables it to acquire depth of vision, solidity of structure and steady control over the design elements. Shukla's grasp on the medium is phenomenal. Add to that the fertile imagination that permeates the film and you have a work of pure, staggering cinematic spunk.
Golshifteh Farahani, Asia Argento, Gaspar No