Filmy Dialogue Movies

Ashwatthama: Loving, losing, growing

A still from Ashwatthama.  

How does a child cope with loss and grief? How do children come to terms with mortality and overcome the trauma that they cannot articulate in words? Among many other things, Pushpendra Singh’s Ashwatthama is a deeply philosophical conversation on death, witnessed by a young boy called Ishvaku.

It is a film I reached out for a bit late in the day, but I am glad I eventually did.

Singh has described Ashwatthama, which played at Busan and MAMI last year, as a “dialogue with Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive”. It made me revisit two of my own favourite Indian films on childhood and adolescence. Pinahat town in Ashwatthama could well be Nischindipur in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali or Phaltan in Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni’s Vihir.

The haggling with the chooranwala, the water play by the tubewell, the wonder at seeing scorpions in a jar or being spellbound by the predictions of a bull — at a very basic level, the wide-eyed childhood experiences in Ashwatthama hark back to the candyman, the kittens, the rain dance, the humming telegraph pole, and smoke-bellowing trains of Pather Panchali and the deep dives into the village well in Vihir.

Coming to terms

Ishvaku’s silent mourning after the sudden death of his mother mirrors Apu’s loss of his sister and his inability to comprehend its enormity as he brushes his teeth for the first time without Durga by his side. Ishvaku’s visit to his extended family after his mother’s death is quite like Sameer’s journey, physical and mental, in Vihir, to come to terms with the death of his beloved cousin Nachiket.

All three films are not merely about telling a story. Feelings are not spelt out in words. It is about marrying visuals and sounds to make intimate, complex emotions tangible.

Like Pather Panchali and Vihir, Ashwatthama is rooted in a rural milieu, in this case the rough ravines around Agra.

The portrayal of family, immediate and extended, the warmth and affection of aunts and cousins is just as heartwarming. Then there’s the unadorned acting by non-professional actors and an authenticity to the Braj lingo, the Kabir and Shiv bhajans, and the many intersections of mythology, folk culture and religion.

Not the same

But it is unfair to see the three films in the same light. There is more to Ashwatthama, to the searing quietude of its stark, still, spartan visuals and the geometry of its frames, so unlike the fluid Pather Panchali and lush Vihir. The family here is as much about secrets, repressions and rebellions as about affection. Violence is omnipresent and implicit.

I was particularly taken up with the bonds Ishvaku forms with women, the comfort he draws from them, whether his mother, aunts, or cousins, Mathu Didi and Laali. They tell him stories that take him away to another world; they shape him. “In patriarchal set-ups, even children are marginalised. It is only women who understand and support them. The film is as much about the role of women in a child’s world,” writes Singh. Unfortunately for Ishvaku, he can’t hold on to anyof the women in his life. He has only memories, a particularly abiding and fascinating one is that of his mother’s narration of the story of Ashwatthama.

This undercurrent of mythology offers a unique escape into timelessness in Ashwatthama. Mahabharata’s old Ashwatthama — weary of life but unable to die, cursed with immortality — becomes the metaphor for the inscrutable truth, well beyond his years, that little Ishvaku is trying to understand.

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 11:25:09 AM |

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