The first time I saw this film about 9 years back, I was totally rapt. So today when I picked this film, it was with a happy expectation of a treat. I was not disappointed. If anything, the film seemed even more enthralling this time. It’s just marvellous in every way!!
for what shall I wield a dagger, O Lord?
what can I pluck it out of
or plunge it into
when you are all the world?
Devara Dasimayya, 10th century Indian poet-saint
The film grabs me straight from this quote in the opening credits. This is my personal Weltanschauung, my world view, in a nutshell. I am amazed that it came out of the mind of a 10th century thinker whom I had never before heard of!
Meenakshi (Konkana Sen) is a young Tamil Brahmin woman with a small child who is travelling to her in-laws’ home from her parents’ home in the forests. Raja (Rahul Bose) is a wild-life photographer returning to the city after completing a project. Protective parents and a mutual acquaintance results in Raja promising to look after Meenakshi on the journey.
Thus we enter this microcosmic world within a bus. This world is interesting and varied, just as our real world is. There is a couple canoodling under a blanket, a group of young adults singing noisily, an older Sikh man worrying about personal matters, an old Muslim couple enjoying gentle companionship, a bad tempered spinster, a drinking and bridge-playing group of men (1 heart, 2 spade, pass – how did it end? I am side-tracked..), a mother travelling with her intellectually challenged teen and so on.
In this little ecosystem, an un-namable relationship develops between Meenakshi and Raja. I like it that they are travelling from hill-country to the plains, perhaps an analogy for being in between two worlds, in no-man’s land as it were. They are stopped at an unpassable road. We join the passengers in getting off the bus to view this beautiful and isolated world. A sense of unreality descends. In this world, anything can happen – and does. The bus has wandered into an area rocked by communal violence and today it is the Hindus wanting Muslim blood.
And this communalism invades the sheltered world within the bus. Or was it always there, just hidden by a veneer of civilized behaviour? When the terrorists enter the bus, the veneer is stripped. A coward gives away his neighbours. Meenakshi has previously proven to be a woman with traditional views; on learning that Raja is a Muslim, she shows her own communal bias by muttering ‘And I drank the water he gave me!’ (a no-no for a traditional Hindu). Yet when Raja seems to be in danger, she instinctively protects him by naming him as her husband, Mr.Iyer, an unmistakably Hindu name. So her traditionalism too is a veneer, hiding a humanist who lives inside.
The Muslim couple is killed and the world as they know it collapses around them. They need to find shelter in the village. As none is to be found, Meenakshi , Raja and the baby, assumed to be a family, are taken to a jungle lodge just outside the village. And thus they enter a world within a world. Here they are man and wife, and like couples everywhere, after a bit of a struggle, they learn to value each other. This is a symbiotic relationship; she protects him by naming her as husband, and he looks after her in myriad ways. A certain intimacy develops between them; innocent, yes, but still a certain something. When grilled by fellow stranded passengers, they even make up a past. It seems that this imaginary world has invaded their real world which in itself is unreal at the moment.
Do people really forget tragedy and fear so fast? The group settles into its own little community, continuing on in their own way as if there had been no fanatics and no murder. But the beast of communalism is lurking just outside their own world and it cannot be kept out. When it invades their immediate surrounding, Meenakshi cries out in bewildered shock ‘‘Its so easy to kill a man, its so easy!’. I like how the director has shown their world becoming smaller and smaller; from the outside world to a bus, from a bus to a community, from a community to a lodge, then finally their world is just a bed surrounded by a mosquito net. That world is occupied by a Muslim and a Hindu, both giving succour to each other.
The ending is real and it is poignant. In that train journey and at the station Konkana and Rahul give a heartbreakingly brilliant performance. If you haven’t seen the film, you should; I cannot recommend it enough.
There are big and small touches which make the film authentic. Konkana’s Tamil-accented English is very good (I am Tamil!), even to minutiae like saying ‘fie’ instead of ‘five’. The way her eyes widen when Raja puts his lips to the bottle instead pouring the water as Tamil Brahmins do (its echhal/jhoota otherwise). The way she calls for his attention ‘Are you listening? ’ – typically Tamil. Rahul Bose is equally adept at small touches to authenticate his character. The supporting cast all do a good job I am sure, but as I could not take my eyes away from the leads, who knows?
This is a music blog but today my post is not about music. Zakir Hussain (the Tabla maestro) has done a very good job but I would call it background music, not your typical Bollywood fare. The music sets the mood throughout the film. The song Kithe Meher Ali brings together the poetry of Rumi, a Sufi (Muslim) saint and Devara Dasimayya, a Hindu saint-poet; a very apt piece of music. I didn’t much like the fusion song in English, but I was too involved with the story to mind. If you want to listen to the whole track, click here.
Here is Kithe Meher Ali for your listening pleasure.