Written and directed by Sujaat Saudagar, The Underbug takes place in India as the country is ravaged by violence. On the eve of its Independence Day, rioters have taken to the street, demanding change. However, in the process, the nation is also being torn apart. Fearing for their lives, two rioters (Ali Fazal and Hussain Dalal) take refuge in an abandoned house but, as they dread the terror outside, soon come to believe that there might also be danger within.
In a number of different ways, Saudagar keeps this film tightly written and executed. Shot entirely within the confines of an abandoned home, Saudagar allows the claustrophobic nature of the film to breathe into its narrative. Everything about Underbug feels confined and Saudagar uses his space to add to the tension. However, at the same time, he also keeps the script firmly under control. Clocking in at a mere 68 minutes, Underbug never feels overblown as it moves along at a rapid pace. As such, the film clicks along with the energy of a one-act play without being slowed down by too many distractions or bloated monologues.
And this may be its greatest trick. After all, Underbug has a lot to say.
As they hide in the shadows, these rioters are shown to live in a world that’s fighting for freedom… but isn’t entirely sure what it looks like. Torn apart by generational divides, Underbug asks the question of what it means to be truly free in the modern world. Does freedom look the same for the youth of this age as it did for those of Generation X? Are there other factors than simply loosening government-imposed restrictions to freedom? These questions fuel the films conversations about what it means to express independence during a time of constant change.
At the same time though, the film also leans into the fears associated with modern gender politics. Focusing on the tension between its two rioters, Underbug explores multiple issues dealing with the changing face of masculinity. Ranging from the nature of independence to the terror of responsibility, Underbug explores multiple facets and fears that are faced by men. With increasing intensity, the film establishes and exposes the tensions within the masculine soul. In this way, the oncoming horror that exists outside their bloody hideaway becomes less about the riots themselves and more about a changing culture that surrounds them. While the film’s story may focus on the fear of violence, Underbug suggests that one of the greatest struggles for men is altering their own expectations of themselves. After all, what does it truly mean to be masculine in a new (and better) world of equity?
With wit and fire, The Underbug surprises in just about every way. Featuring strong performances and a smartly written script, the film keeps the intensity building but also manages to explore some of our deepest questions about modern masculinity in the process. It’s definitely a bug worth catching.
The Underbug is playing at Slamdance ’23.