SILENCES, ALIENATION AND CAMARADERIE

USKI ROTI(1969) & NAZAR(1990)

Any Mani Kaul work of art has produced an aesthetic, internalized, subconscious effect on me. His images have a haunting way to speak louder than words as articulations of what should be said to dramatize an individual life simply doesn’t interest him. Hence, the ultra slow burn of his filmmaking sensibility which creeps up on us like a tendril left to grow to an enormous length, revealing the passive resignation to which we are subject to. That slow burn as regards the fate of two women caught up in loveless and clearly non- existent marital relationships give USKI ROTI and NAZAR a passage of time;  there’s an internalized gravitas equivalent to the way marriages, more often than not, continue to entrap strangers in a bond mooted by social convention and which becomes a post meant to be left vacant for womenfolk. Desires die out and they are blinded into actually being dutiful to a person who doesn’t even see her as anything other than a distant shadow. One who is the factual other half. No real definition is accorded to her station in this scenario.

They, hence, become the ultimate blank slates as their male counterparts either entrap them for their own needs, as a youthful trophy akin to the antique items comprising the husband’s shop in NAZAR , or keep them waiting on a never-ending leash as in USKI ROTI where a simple and unwavering wife’s walk to the dusty highway, for the sake of her husband’s daily share of food, becomes a thankless tryst with her inferior status in a patriarchal set-up.





                  ***

These are works of extraordinary realism and tell us that instead of fabricating ghost tales for our own mythmaking, we must look at how we voluntarily end up making spectral figures of the women in our lives. Women who wait throughout foggy nights, dusty afternoons in the open, witness another kindred’s death by suicide or jump to their own deaths in a haze of anonymity, with no real witnesses to their final unraveling. All these images are realised with striking visual power in both works.

In Nazar, Mr. Kaul, taking the brokenness of dialogues similar to the adrift nature of nightmares or uneasy dreams influenced by guilt, gives an open window of an apartment building in Bombay the feel of a haunted house. Or the young wife’s(Shambhavi Kaul) entry to a stationary boat on the seaside a quality of taking her inside either as in a shelter or a prison, two traits visible in the apartment too that she calls home. Iconic maestro Zia Dagar’s rudra veena punctuates many passages here with an appropriate musical ethos.



USKI ROTI is, to me, a work that rouses us with the sheer power of its imagery, blending fabrics, minimalism of dialogues, interior spaces, faces and hands in a dissection of repressed adult lives married to mundanity and a lack of emotional or sensual reprieve. Balo, the protagonist’s tale of patience has no payback just as her younger sister’s(Richa Vyas) alienation and fear of siege from a rowdy villager has no shield to be offered to her. For both, there is no actual return to security other than the circle of everyday in continuum. It’s bleak and uncovers the inversion of actions where the men indulge in indiscretions while the women’s movements through time and space are suspended in a zone of almost liminal resignation.



                 ***

Looking at Balo’s long walks through fields and general open spaces, I was taken back to my train journeys or drives across the countryside where every lone figure I could spot was an enigma, seemingly occupying a remote ghostland. Their private lives elusive and their immediate position entirely unknown. Only we can see them from a distance. Balo(Garima) here becomes a manifestation of those unknown figures whose lives are exactly the same as our own. Of course, the ending in USKI ROTI brings a reunion between Balo and the elusive and unattainable Sucha Singh, her husband; a moment where we feel her determined zeal has paid off. Of course, there is hope for her, a tender touch from him means a lot to her but the preceding pattern of silences and alienation has already been set. So no false promise is doled out. Even in the 1990 feature also featuring eminent filmmaker Shekhar Kapur and the inestimable legend Surekha Sikri, it seems that affection is sneaking its way in the central relationship but then unresolved silences reign supreme.

On the other hand, the location of dizzying heights vis a vis the open window of the apartment in NAZAR made me realise how from my fearless fascination with high altitudes to experiencing a swerving motion and mild vertigo in the same spaces, life has taken me to uneasy ends following many unpleasant unravelings. So both these have a deep psychological intertwining with my state of mind. That’s why they produce such a hypnotic, realistic spell. As they will for discerning viewers.


**

SWALLOW(2019)

This is another tale of alienation, imposed silences that mire a beautiful young woman’s induction into society after marriage. Reminiscent of a ’50s housewife, the lead protagonist in SWALLOW is more of a statement, a wallpaper or an object for her partner and in-laws rather than a full-bodied individual. The hollow import of affluence and affected mannerisms is given a slow burning urgency here. Her implosion and dangerous tryst with the concept of ‘control’ by swallowing inedible objects has indeed a psychological unraveling. A shrink eventually intervenes but some deep-seated traumas can hardly find rehabilitation through mental analysis alone.

Emotional stasis from her maternal and marital units leads us to eventually discover a dark aspect regarding her parentage. This ties in with her own impending motherhood.

By the film’s third act, her escape from the confines of one home into another, where she meets her biological father, makes way for a resolution that gives her physical autonomy over the body she chose to fill with sharp objects. The real horror here is in how much we neglect a young life for all its worth. As the lead, Haley Bennett truly delivers a performance that is precise, expressive to the core and catches every nuance of her open-ended journey.




I also like how commonplace dialogues are employed to portray the stereotypes of most of these so-called unions our society upholds as essential.

**

CRY MACHO (2021)

To cap off this part, I hold a special roll of honour for the eternally gifted Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial, featuring him in the lead along with the promising Eduardo Minett.

I really liked its gentle and straightforward story built around a road trip from Mexico to Texas, the dynamics of bonding and how it seeks to demystify the hollow terrain of manhood in our current times.

Kudos to one of my all-time favourite artists for bringing nuance to a characterisation that he can pull off with elan out of thin air. Also for keeping my faith in the Western genre in its modifying forms. But the real winner here has to be the rooster who is Eduardo’s companion. He is named Macho and there’s an unusually memorable shot where he walks with swagger between the two males towards the sunset.





***

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