Director Gurvinder Singh is not a man in a hurry. His cinema too, which has an easy pace, looking at life and living in a pleasantly unhurried sort of way. He seems to saying, let the world run. I shall walk, pause and ponder!
Gurvinder's 2011 debut, Alms for a Blind Horse premiered at Venice, a film in which the camera moved along a small Punjab village whose folks were angry because there were attempts to grab their plots of agricultural land which the big business wanted for their industrialisation, to spin money, profit and pleasure.
The helmer's second outing, The Fourth Direction, in 2015 premiering at Cannes had an urgency about it. The pace here had quickened a bit. Set on the aftermath of Operation Blue Star (when the Indian security forces stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out militants), the movie examined the dilemma and the plight of a people, simple souls, caught between the excesses of the security forces and the rebels. The people did not know where to turn to, and Gurvinder captured the horror and the fear in a near Hitchcockian style. There was no violence, there was no bloodshed and yet the anxiety and angst, the despair and dismay were clearly etched on their faces!
In a way, Gurvinder had mastered the technique of showing little, but saying much more.
In a complete turn around, his third foray into features, Bitter Chestnut – which premiered at Busan and was screened at the ongoing Mumbai Film Festival – is peace personified. He travels to the quietude of the Himalayas to a picture postcard town of Bir, where a 17-year-old lad, Kishan (Kishan Katwal), works at a little cafe, looking with wonderment at the tourists who throng there to take part in paragliding.
The cafe is run by Monisha Mukundan, an elderly lady who has left behind God's Own Country (Kerala) to perhaps seek a still great god atop the snow-clad mountains. The hustle and bustle of the plains are now just a memory for her, the visitors to Bir, who stop by her cafe, her only source of diversion. Or, maybe distraction.
Her motherly instincts are etched sharply when we see her relationship with Kishan, who has left behind his family of father, mother, siblings and other relatives at Baragraan, many miles away.
Kishan is torn between his desire to explore fresh frontiers, a fresh lifestyle with a job in the city, and the demand of his family to take up its traditional profession of carpentry. He really cannot decide: his dreams to move away clashing with his own insecurities about a life he has no clue about. He watches how guests to the cafe seem distraught and disgruntled with modern, urban existence. He contrasts this with his own life, amidst a people who have learnt to live with a variety of cultures and in perfect harmony with Nature.
In just about 100 minutes, Gurvinder probes a giant of an idea: the clash between the rat-race and leisurely living, between modernism with all its ills, and tradition. Bitter Chestnut is sober, subtle, substantial and stylistic.
And, unbelievable as it may sound, Gurvinder has used only non-professionals. Kishan Katwal actually works in a cafe, his parents whom we see on the screen are his own, and Mukundan lives in Bir. The cafe used to be run by a renowned Indian auteur's sister, but she passed away just before Gurvinder began his shoot. Otherwise, she would have been cast.
It could not have been easy for Gurvinder to direct a group like this. But he has achieved something quite, quite difficult.
Admittedly, the film may seem ponderous and stretched for those used to Hollywood and Bollywood style in which frames flash by in a jiffy. But then Bitter Chestnut's message is all spirit and soul.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author and movie critic)
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