The COVID pandemic has forever changed the landscape of our world, effecting everything from religion and politics to visits to the local grocer. During the early days there was an overwhelming sense of dread due to the unseen force that seemingly lurked behind every door and the instability of an uncertain future, a primordial fear that permeated communities and left its mark psychologically, subtly working its way under the skin. Perhaps the biggest adjustment was being sequestered to our homes, fighting boredom and being alone with our thoughts. The premise of Shujaat Saudagar’s (Rock on 2) latest film The Underbug may not lay out the context of its themes as clearly, but this is most certainly a COVID-era film.
Part psychological thriller, part horror film, The Underbug brings together two men (Ali Fazal and Hussain Dalal) who have stumbled upon a deserted house as they seek shelter from rioting on the eve of India’s Independence Day. The two men are paranoid and scared, made all the more edgy by the bloodstains on the floor of the house in which they seek shelter. The men are bleeding and injured, obvious participants in the riots, untrusting of each other at first, not wanting to reveal their religions to each other. But as the night continues, a shaky alliance forms out of survival in the house.
The conversation that Saudagar is starting, with the help of co-writer and lead actor Hussain Dalal (#Homecoming), is an inward look at the psyche of men on the fringe of society who have been weaponized for political gain. The riots the men were a part of speak to the macro idea of the sectarian violence and xenophobia that have plagued India, an insidious virus in its own right. The micro is the men themselves. It’s not a question of Hindu or Muslim, or where you were born, it’s about being blinded by rage, the generational cycle of hatred that has brought these two men together.
The house they hide in is large and decadent, further bolstering the argument of the divide between people in India. These men, who remark that the bathroom is larger than their house, are being taunted by the wealth on display around them. They have conversations about arranged marriages and consent within marriage, about killing the rich and taking back the power. All this while sitting at a table neither of them could afford. There is something lurking just below the surface, something more sinister at play that begins to drive a wedge in their own sanity.
There is definitely an ambiguity to the duo; are there really two men? Is one the outward appearance of the other’s greatest fears and worst secrets? The house is a conduit for the subconscious. The more they are tormented, the more reality is taken into question. There is a line from the film that encapsulates this idea of being haunted: “God created man. Man killed man . . and created ghosts.” It’s not the house that is haunted, but the person. A similar idea was presented in last year’s Men, directed by Alex Garland, in that these fringe society members, these underbugs, will continue to the cycle of violence, and it is something that needs to be reckoned with and challenged.
At times, this feels like a stage play, with the men having these conversations in different rooms of the house, slowly losing their grip with reality as they discuss cultural and sociopolitical trends in their paranoid state. The mood set by Saudagar is palpable, keeping the house sparsely lit to emphasize the fear of the unknown, and when the men encounter the eerie presence in the house, every shadow becomes a threat. This coupled with several long takes, at times following right behind the actors as they search the house really ratchets up the tension. The use of the film’s score is near perfection with its creepy droning getting louder and louder at just the right time, leaving you thoroughly unsettled.
This film succeeds in generating conversations about creed, caste, religion, and xenophobia, all bolstered by great performances and excellent cinematography, particularly the exterior shots in the woods. Solid direction from Saudagar makes up for any shortcomings in the story that, at times, can be hard to follow. Overall, at a brisk 68 minutes, this is a film worth your time and the conversation is one worth having.
Screening during Slamdance Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official The Underbug Slamdance Film Festival webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.