The twisted wail of metal scarring pavement shrieks across black, announcing the crash landing of an Enfield Bullet. Slowly, the helmeted rider staggers to his feet; the familiar thump-thump of the motorcycle recedes as a rush of pulsating blood floods the hermetic bubble covering his head. He looks left and right; he is standing at the center of an Indian chowk, in Pune City’s most perilous peth, as late night streetlamps bathe him in a searing spotlight and the eye of a gathering crowd swirls directly at him.
Raising his visor, the rider is suddenly awash in a sea of indistinct verbal jabs, whose rising level is unmistakably hostile. His foreign eyes furiously scan the scene: he sees storefront signs, written in a script he cannot read; he meets angry locals, accosting him in a language he cannot understand; he finds, finally, the true victim of the accident—a wizened, elderly man, lying lifeless in the street, face down in a pool of his own blood. Removing his helmet, the traveler is overcome with remorse—yet unable to communicate this through the haze of Marathi gaalis directed at him from the irate crowd.
How does one respond to a total lack of power? How does one communicate in a context where he is illiterate, deaf, and dumb—and wanted for manslaughter? Riven by anxiety, this desperate young American IT manager, newly arrived to India, casts about for a lifeline and finds one in Rajesh, a local power broker who speaks some English and manages the urban tamasha dance theatre that faces out on the chowk where the accident occurs. When Rajesh pacifies the crowd, the American is left with a choice—and the decision he makes sends him plunging into the longest night of his life.
Film noir has been called “the genre that symbolizes our nightmares,” and Breakdown shares much inspiration with such classics of the genre as Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, and Edward G. Ulmer’s Detour, in which desperate men encounter femme fatales at the edge of the city, seeking redemption on the seamier side of American society. Yet this longest of nights occurs in India, where warning signs are hidden from Western eyes in plain sight—and sound. Our American fatefully descends into Rajesh’s world of seedy entertainment for men, where curvaceous women in colorful sarees gyrate to lavani rhythms on stage while snatching rupees from the hands of their enraptured male audience. A barrage of fluorescent lights flashes across the dance hall, a heavily pregnant singer belts out lyrics to cue the dancers’ movements, and swarthy men in baniyan undershirts deliberately collide into the foreign intruder, dressed oh-so-stylishly in his dinner jacket and designer blue jeans. He’s not in Kansas anymore; in fact, he’s not in America at all.
Shot entirely on location in Pune, Maharashtra, Breakdown re-imagines the classic American genre in a foreign context—where the bright hues of vulgar Indian commerce cast their own shadows, and the power these dancers enjoy as performers dissipates once they retire backstage to “private rooms,” the sordid center of Rajesh’s business spiral. There, the American encounters Janki, the featured dancer of the entertainment club, whom he had witnessed earlier swirling around the stage. Her looks and body language capture his attention, and catch him in the karmic currents of a culture he cannot comprehend, where calculating men and canny women prey on the conscience of frantically concerned American characters. Haunted by past deeds, dogged by fate, alone in his thoughts and desperate for catharsis, the American tries to navigate a world where he is at once denuded of power—and left with little recourse than to guess after the intentions of others. Rife with suspense, Breakdown puts an Indian accent onto Bob Dylan’s famous formulation, “You know something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is—do you, Mr. Jones?”