Why is rural India always so inauthentic in cinema?

More often than not, makeshift Film City locales stand in for ruralscapes that exist nowhere in particular

Updated - May 26, 2021 08:24 am IST

Published - August 18, 2018 05:08 pm IST

A still from Bhool Bhulaiyaa.

A still from Bhool Bhulaiyaa.

Although there has never been a dearth of rural-themed films, an authentic hinterland has mostly eluded us. More often than not, makeshift Film City locales stand in for ruralscapes that exist nowhere in particular. Rows upon rows of facsimile huts, a preponderance of turbans, dhotis and colourful ghagras , deeply entrenched feudalism, and faux dialects have suffused our rural dramas.

The reel realm

There are exceptions, of course. For instance, the eternal Pather Panchali, parallel films like Manthan or Mirch Masala , or even J.P. Dutta’s early oeuvre. Otherwise, the rural ethos of curry Westerns like Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Mera Karam Mera Dharam or Sholay have clouded our notions of the pastoral to such an extent that the legitimate outback has been rendered invisible and unknown. It was a thought that repeatedly came to mind as I watched Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni’s Vihir at a festival years ago — because it transported one to a realm so fetchingly real it seemed unlike any India as we knew it.

The film pivots around the unlikely friendship between the easily conditioned, city-bred Sameer (Madan Deodhar) and his country cousin, Nachiket (Alok Rajwade), a free spirit. Sameer is impressed by Nachiket’s maverick ways and strangely compelling philosophising, and their favourite haunt is the eponymous well, where they while away the bewitchingly languid summer. The film was shot in and around the mofussil township of Phaltan, whose well-appointed Rajwada Palace has lent its stately settings to blockbusters like Khatta Meetha and Bhool Bhulaiyaa . In Vihir , though, Sudhir Palsane’s understated lens takes us to the region’s natural environs — plantations, lakes and knolls are captured like never before, both luscious and sparse, distant and inviting.

Besides the main ensemble of known figures like Jyoti Subhash and Mohan Agashe, the film trains an anthropological gaze on a rural populace that is, for once, not made up of ersatz extras but the actual denizens of the land. We spot them in the buses Sameer takes to and from his cousin’s village, the farmers’ markets he frequents, and the desolate outposts he finds himself in. These are people whose wizened countenances, full of character and gravitas, are not usually seen on the silver screen. These rooted sequences are redolent of Walter Salles’ Central do Brasil , in which a road trip takes its protagonists, an orphan and a retired schoolteacher, to the very heart of Brazil. So, too, the Maharashtrian hinterland has much in store for Sameer, as the film morphs into a poignant rite of passage, precipitated by Nachiket’s disappearance.

Strange terrain

Deodhar brings a heartrending maturity to his character’s experience of irretrievable loss. Although his body is never found, Nachiket is presumed drowned. Sameer’s unarticulated grieving leads him to temporarily leave Pune for the countryside, where his wanderings are as much to miraculously find his missing friend, as it is to discover the life-lessons he might have left behind. Once again, it is the Phaltan terrain that provides him deliverance, as a shepherd takes him in. It is an exchange that perhaps provides Sameer the answers he seeks.

Vihir was shoddily distributed by its producers and never released digitally, so the film seems to be playing a strange game of hide-and-seek with the cult following it has gathered in the years since its release.

The writer sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him, even as a child. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.

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