Gurvinder Singh’s acclaimed Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan is a sensitive, beautifully crafted film that brings Mani Kaul back to us.
It is early morning. A man wakes up in rural Punjab and asks for tea. His wife importunes the daughter to get up and make the tea. She does, lighting the earthen stove in the outer courtyard, waking up her brother and sending him out with the goats while the water comes to a boil. The father sits sipping the tea when a neighbour passing by, calls out for him to join the village council. A few shots later the man begins to walk, camera tracking him. Another neighbour passing by taps him on the shoulder and asks him to walk faster. The man comes to an abrupt stop right in the middle of the road. The camera pulls back. Then cuts 180° to a direct frontal and tracks forward. Still the man does not move. My timing is my own!
This is the opening sequence of Gurvinder Singh’s Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse). A film that has won critical acclaim both nationally and internationally (Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Punjabi Film at the National Awards 2012; Special mention at Venice and Abu Dhabi besides a slew of other festivals). It is an NFDC production with Mani Kaul as Creative Producer. A simple title at the beginning of the film reads: For Mani, in Remembrance.
In many ways, the breach caused by Uski Roti and its conscious dilation of time gets healed with this film. Simply because time here is lived, personalised, experienced. Sometimes the camera movement seems strained — especially as it sets out to move from a near perfect static composition, and, in most cases, where the movement cue is from dialogue — and one is aware of a certain artificiality. But, by and large, duration, though extended, does not hang in this film. Everything — the compositions, the colours, the yin-yang cohesion of light and shadow, you really cannot speak of one without the other — all of it makes this world so tangible and felt, something rare in formalist works.
The sound design too does a great deal to hold the film together. The fade-ins in particular are exquisite, preparing you well in advance for a tractor, a train, a bus that is to appear shortly in frame. So much so that a certain musicality gets transferred to the visuals and they seem to actually flow. Along with the camera movement, it is the sound track, the effects track and also the unusual, riveting background music that contains and delineates the space-time axis of the film, at the centre of which is the young girl who, to me, is the chief protagonist of the film.
Daughter, sister, little mother. The film revolves around her. It is a very finely etched characterisation. But more importantly, among all the actors or rather non-actors/models in the film, her face is the most mobile. Even when it is probably just awkward acting, it moves you. She never can quite make the words come out as deadpan as probably required. It is always imbued with some emotion, however ineffable and fleeting. And at those moments when she actually does act — becomes character — it wrenches the heart.
There is a scene where the mother is scolding the younger brother while she is looking out of the window at the village boys cheering the horses galloping past. There is a small smile on her face and the external lights bathe her in the softest of hues. But hearing her mother’s litany she turns to chide her, knowing her brother is already hurt. The young girl’s face at that moment is a study in delicacy. Expressions waft like a breeze over her features. Voice straining to a pitch that is unnatural to her but required to match and silence her mother, neck stretched taut; there is such an intensity to that moment that communicates — even in the long shot — that one is not surprised when even the mother changes her tune. These are the moments when the film comes alive. This is cinema at its best, nuanced and evocative rather than overt and in-the-face.
Similarly in the very last shot, as she steps out in the middle of the night to the edge of the village, a voice calls out asking her where she is going — the first time we hear her addressed by name: Dayalo. Grace. It is her older brother, Melu, returning from the city. ‘Nowhere. I was just feeling restless at home,’ she says. On such a day (it is the lunar eclipse) no one goes out, he says and takes her back with him. The film ends there.
But let us backtrack and recapitulate what the rest of the film is about. The listlessness, the sheer helplessness, of Dalit life, both in rural and urban contexts. Where your house can get demolished while you are still sleeping within it. Where shots are heard in the middle of the night but no one knows what has happened. Where even collective action leads nowhere. Moving in a way parallel to the narrative, rather than telling the story, the film charts meticulously the miniscule shifts of emotion within this human condition.
Melu, the elder son of the household, is a cycle rickshaw driver in the city. While his wife is away, he steals the money she has been saving up; probably to have a drink. Participating in a strike, he is injured. Dressing the wound at a local hospital, he retires to sleep it out, first in a quiet lane by the canal (making for a very painterly shot), then in a rather lush and picturesque garden. Here his friends visit and take digs at him. They shift venue to a local fort to continue drinking and here the frustration peaks, but stops short of violence. He tries to spend the night in a friend’s house, apparently to escape his wife’s wrath, or police action, it is not clear which. But he is denied room. So after eating at a local dhaba he returns to his village, just in time to stop his sister from going out into the night.
So, in a way, Melu too is one of the protagonists of the film. He is referred to early on and his entry anticipated (once again through the sound track) long before he is actually introduced, only in fact in the 44th minute of the film (one of the benefits of DVD viewing!). Subsequently, sound and picture come together, in a magnificent shot of a train thundering past his face. Soon after which he returns home. And when the two protagonists finally meet the film can draw to a close, for both narrative and extra-narrative, diegetic, reasons.
That is indeed one of the beauties of this film. That it unfolds even like an alaap, both linear and circuitous. How conscious and/or spontaneous this is, and whether it actually reveals itself only in retrospect, after a couple of viewings in fact, is of course a point. But at any rate it is something Mani would have loved. After a mesmeric, Stalker-type track into darkness, there is a song that haunts the end of the film — O the boat of the stern one, you who took him away from me … On your bow lies asleep, my indifferent lord. Yet with this sensitive, beautifully crafted film, his legacy lives on.