“One may live anywhere but the village is where the roots are. I will suggest you tear down this old house and build a new one.” (Gamak Ghar)
In my paternal village in Orissa there is a verandah. It has circular pillars. A little away from the Verandah is a well and two community kitchens, where, until a few years back, food was cooked in mud stoves. The reason for two kitchens is primarily because two families stay in that few square feet of property surrounded by coconut trees. The family deity (Ista debate) Giridhari resides in a small temple-like structure attached to the house. There are two identical fishponds behind the compound. Earlier (before the 1999 cyclone), the house was made of mud and thatch. Now it is pucca (with walls, roof, and floor in their entirety). The rooms have green distempered walls, while the verandah and the outside areas are painted white. There is just one thatched structure remaining in the cluster of houses. A few feet away from this hutment is a well with a date inscribed on its circular edges ‘1942’. It is a marking on the cement when the well might have been established, giving a kind of rough idea of the settlement, right at the source of water. The settlement is surrounded by rice fields, further away mango orchards, cowsheds and irrigation canals. This coastal Orissa village is a picture postcard for weary relatives from the city who make their annual pilgrimage to the village during the annual harvest festival ‘Mouchab’ (Makar Sankranti) around January. It is around this time and Durga Puja, people from cities (close and far) come visiting to turn the clock in their lives back to revisit what they had left.
It’s been three years since I have visited my ancestral village. Nothing much would have changed in that piece of earth in these three years. The coconut trees will be swaying in the monsoon rains, the ponds will be full and the lone irrigation canal across the road that leads to this beautiful oasis will be overflowing. The village exists in my memory space through the numerous visits since my childhood.
What took me back to my village is a film that has been a toast of MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) winning the second prize in 2019. As is with many such films that do not garner wide media coverage, I got to know of it only from a friend who had watched it.
A week later, on a dull evening while reading about India’s and the rest of the world’s Covid Tally, a certain movie star’s suicide and the ensuing drama, I suddenly remembered my friend’s advice. I stopped scrolling the nauseating news and logged into Mubi - A well-curated site with a lineup of award-winning and critical films.
A small synopsis before the movie started mentioned the Director’s name – Achal Mishra. As the starting credit slowly roll in, we are taken to a mud road winding into the horizon. A singular tree stands on the side. Besides the tree cattle grazes languidly. As far as one could see on the horizon there was nothing else except the earth meeting the sky at the far distance. There are puffy white clouds in the sky. Behind the tree and beyond there were some cattle grazing. A gentle plucking of a guitar accompanies the frame, which is square, reminiscent of the 120 mm still films of last century. The colour tone is of the 35 mm era. The year 1998.
Darbhanga, as per Wikipedia, is the 5th largest city of Bihar. It was the seat of power of the Mithila region. Like many princely states, Darbhanga has seen its fortunes adjusting to Independent India’s once most famous and then the forgotten state of Bihar. It is in a village called Madhepura, 5 km from Darbhanga we are introduced to a house and its visiting inhabitants. Members of an extended family have gathered for the ceremony on the birth of a child. The house itself is non-descript. The walls are white, the verandah has slanted asbestos roof on the top. The roof stands on four round pillars. Clothes hang on a line. A small cement structure holds the tulsi plant. Children play in the open area opposite the Verandah. Men joke and play cards sitting on the bed. Women fry potato fritters, the newborn swings in a cradle. On a second thought this could have been a scene from my village with people speaking in a different dialect.
The next 91 minutes take me away from the city I have lived in for the last 14 years. A city that has ensconced me in measurable comforts but where I can never belong or claim anything much beyond addresses that kept shifting. By every passing minute, we feel Achal has taken us to a past that existed in many of our lives. A past whose present lives in old family albums, Whatsapp group and Facebook posts.
As a family congregates for a few days in their ancestral house and settles themselves in the rhythm of an idyllic life just a few miles from Darbhanga, we slowly become a part of the film. Mind you this is not a village that you have seen in Ray’s Pather Panchali. Proximity to erstwhile princely state capital and present-day district headquarters – Darbhanga has given this village a semi-urban character.
Gamak Ghar – The village house, here is not thatched. Instead, it has an asbestos roof with tiles on top. The floor is cemented, and the boundary wall separates the property from other houses and gives it open spaces in the front and side. With people arriving, conversations ensue from education to card games to food. This is middle-class India that has ventured out to make its fortune but still feel pangs of nostalgia at times. The cycle, the Bajaj Chetak, the Ambassador are all remnants of a bygone era. Those chaotic last few years before the turn of the century. How did Achal who I got to know after Googling is just 24 years old, born maybe around the turn of the century, get the set and characters so right?
The film moves on languidly. The gathering is because of the birth of a child over a few days with families arriving for the naming ceremony of a kid. As the day’s proceedings start, the children venture out to pick mangoes in the orchard. A water buffalo roams around. Later the cooks arrive and start getting ready for the feast ahead in the day, frying fish in big ‘Dekhis’. I paused. This is my story in a different time and space, this is my village. These are my relatives and I am one of those little boys playing in the front yard, picking mangoes from the orchard. Later we witness the naming ceremony with age-old songs being sung by the womenfolk followed by a grand village feast.
The rituals for the newborn begin with songs and the various steps are conducted. Later people from the village congregate for a grand feast with superfluous amounts of food. After the feast is over, the family sits and talks about inconsequential topics like ‘overheating’ to prospects in bigger cities for the younger people in the family. The womenfolk congregate inside in the room and talk about family jewels and traditions of gifting. The children meanwhile gather inside to watch Bollywood film on a VCR.
One might ask here, well what is the story leading to? This seems like a family VHS tape. To answer this question, one must understand that cinema as a medium is changing. The realism we have seen in the films of the last century was based on a strong dose of idealism. India and the world have changed. Between the blockbusters and the artsy films are countless other stories of ordinary lives and their pathos which might seem to be without a plot. But all of them are characters caught in a time and space capsule. These tiny memories make ordinary lives. The song and drama are all in the Bollywood films that after the feast the children sit and watch in Achal’s universe. Here the people sleep on shared beds under mosquito nets. Women in one quarter, men in another. Here dawn breaks unhurriedly with the chairs of the night gathering the fine mist of the morning. Here every object, character, and the house itself is the center stage. Gamak Ghar or the house with circular pillared verandah is the protagonist here.
Once the ceremony is over, everyone is ready to leave towards their destination and destinies. But before that, there is still time for a ‘family picture’. The family gathers and as the sun rises, we hear a click. The house devoid of living beings is now in the hands of the mother and some house helps. She has lived here all her life and she is holding post with a framed picture of her husband on the white distempered wall. Nowhere is the change in seasons as prominent as the countryside. Dark clouds gather and it rains. Everything is soaking wet. The verandah, though dry, is empty with a lone bird flying in and sitting on the empty bed. The mattress has been removed.
The square screen transitions into a wide frame of ‘kash’ flowers symbolizing autumn. A diesel loco chugs across the horizon. The similarities on the outside might be symbolic of Pather Panchali, but we are in a different time and in a different village. India is urbanized. Steam locos have replaced diesel engines. Pucca houses are common in villages. Electricity and even Satellite TV has reached households. The VCR has been replaced by the internet and mobile phones.
Twelve years have elapsed. The house has withstood floods and many seasons. There is a congregation again. This time for the main event in the calendar, ‘Chaat Puja’. The year is 2010. Twelve years have elapsed. White kash flowers with a distant train engine are evocative of another masterpiece made a few decades away depicting rural Bengal. In the pristine settings ‘chaat’ has its own magical feel. The family is home for ‘chaat’, this timeless in number. A decade has elapsed. Many have made their dreams come true in big cities. Some are still struggling in Madhepura. No one plays cards anymore, but in a customary way they light crackers in the mooning on the ghats and later in the evening at home.
Later as two family members, sit and shuffle family photographs and read through their Grandpa’s dramas and other writings, neatly preserved by their Grandma in a big GI sheet trunk, it struck me the similarities this film draws in so many of our lives. Every house lives a life of its own. This life is ensconced in those who are born there, those who live there, those you visit, and those who depart, to return or never to return. The village is like an old Banyan tree that shelters everyone. And then like birds living on the tree, individuals fly off to make their destinies. The attachment with the ancestral land can dwindle but it is never snapped like an umbilical cord after the baby is born.
Posts the floods in 2010, the mother has left Gamak Ghar to stay in Patna. The house has fallen barren again. With pucca double stories houses coming around, the village has slowly started looking different. Over a conversation, one of the brothers suggests that the house be rebuilt. The fate of this structure now hangs in balance. As the customary crackers are lit after ‘chaat’ in front of the verandah, the house looked resplendent in the faint glow. The conversations this time center more around livelihood, travels to pilgrimages and unforeseen events.
If there is a climax in the film, it is in the last few minutes. Before the curtain falls in this poetic tale of Achal, a film we are transitioned to 2019. This is the present. The past hangs in just one photograph of a man whose plays were once enacted on stage. The old caretaker might not be needed as before with the house under renovation. He has an option of overlooking the harvest from the agricultural land, it is a decision he must take. As the asbestos roof is carefully dismantled and the tiles and bricks are taken off, the house loses its original character. We do not know how it will look in its new avatar. As the song ‘que sera sera’ goes the future’s is not ours to see, what will be, will be.
Bishweshwar lives in the 'garden city' of Bangalore. He aspires to write like Philip Larkin or Charles Bukowski, and dreams of clicking pictures like Prabuddha Dasgupta. He's the creative director at a digital communication agency.