Does Instagram make you feel good? For most people, the answer is going to be no. Kabir Mehta’s “BUDDHA.mov,” which was screened at the Ann Arbor Film Festival last week, shows the life of Buddhadev Mangaldas, who could be one of the so-called “Instagram stars.” Mangaldas is a young cricketer from India, who through the course of the documentary, becomes a luxury real estate agent and what he calls a “Movie Star.” You can even read it in his Instagram bio (@buddha.gram), if you’d like.
Mehta’s documentary, which chronicles Mangaldas’s “(authorization of) unrestricted access to the most private parts of his life,” attempts to grapple with the ever increasing importance of social media. “BUDDHA.mov” is told through a progression of full shots, the camera perfectly still and watching Mangaldas navigate his world. Some of these images are plain, like when Mangaldas balances on a yoga ball at the gym or shows a building site to potential buyers. Other times, Mehta overlays Tinder, Whatsapp and text interfaces in an effort to overstimulate the audience. Technology is supposed to be bad, no?
As Mehta gets more access to Mangaldas’s personal life, collecting shots of his various sexual exploits and an extended iPhone recording of Mangaldas admiring himself naked in the mirror, it’s pretty clear what Mehta is trying to say: Some tools, when put into the hands of the hedonistic and shallow, will not be used for good purposes. It’s hardly a revelation. Celebrity culture and the sexual voyeurism it invites was identified way back in the mid-2000s. Kim Kardashian says thanks for paying her homage.
Once you realize that the themes of “BUDDHA.mov” are outdated, the rest of the film begins to fall apart, too. Mangaldas, in comparison to the forces of pop culture of the early 2000s, is a small fish in a big pond. When anyone can put on a social performance on Instagram, what makes Mangaldas the right figure to focus on? Why not profile a person in the process of building an online presence instead of someone who already has a following? It seems like laziness, which is only compounded when Mangaldas reveals that Mehta is a distant relation while they are sitting together at dinner.
Mehta, however, doesn’t understand that he’s behind the curve. He truly feels that he’s creating something subversive and interesting, which is most evident when the narration cracks a joke while the camera focuses on a layman eating his lunch: With complete conviction, it says something to the effect of “festival crowds love this working class shit.” Instead of making a point, the comment divulges the lack of thought on Mehta’s part. As a result, “BUDDHA.mov” is a total indulgence in the celebrity it attempts to mock.