Review: ANTARDAHAN – WEAK STORY, GOOD PRESENTATION
After a long time, a Bangla film was released with an “A” certificate. The hall at Nandan II, usually reserved for art cinema screenings, was almost packed to capacity. Antardahan marks the directorial debut of Dr. Promod Pandey, who has a background in theatre. The story of Antardahan is rooted in a remote village in Purulia district where the director comes from. Vima and Balika, a young couple, live in the village. Balika works for a living while Vima, always depressed, spends his time drinking away and asking his mother and wife for hand-outs for his drinking bouts. They live with Vima’s mother who empathizes with the daughter-in-law used as a sandbag by the husband who takes out his frustrations on the wife. They are childless after seven or eight years of marriage and Vima can no longer bear the barbs and insults of fellow villagers. Balika goes back to her parents once but is brought right back by her brother because the poor family cannot carry the social and financial burden of a married daughter.
The unwritten question that raises its head is – who is responsible for the barren marriage – is it Vima, or is it Balika? In the backward village, the question would not even occur to anyone since it is always the woman who has to bear the brunt of infertility. A disgusted Vima rejects her sexual advances. Balika is depressed too, but she cannot afford to be drowned in personal sorrow. Balika’s mother-in-law persuades her to visit the sadhu who lives atop a hill and has a cure for every ill. How he cures illiterate, ignorant and humiliated village women of infertility is anyone’s guess. After the initial hesitation, Balika willingly gives in to the physical desires of the sadhu and actually enjoys the experience. But, when it is all over, she wakes up to a realization and in panic, asks the man, “What if it is a girl?” The film closes on this tragic cry.
There is little originality in Saikat Rakshit’s story. We are all familiar with the plight of infertility in villages and even in upbeat towns always targeting the woman. We get to read and see how self-styled spiritual leaders exploit the poor, the illiterate and the ignorant in many ways, including convincing them to have sex. The originality lies in the treatment and the approach. Oishani Kar, with a background in theatre, portrays Balika with courage and a freshness of approach not often seen in Indian cinema. She rarely speaks, allowing her body language, the glow of light in her eyes, her look to do it all. Whether it is her desperation for sex expressed in a given scene, or in the scene where she sits under a tree, forlorn and sad, not caring about the sari almost falling off her breast, or, in the glaring looks she throws at her angry husband, till that last cry of desperation, she is wonderful. Her portrayal is enriched more by silences than by words. The look on her face when she hears imaginary cries of a new-born infant is eloquent. The director has given her the right look and make-up to fit into the role. The director portrays Vima himself, but the anger, the disgust and the depression remain the same from beginning to end.
Antardahan is shot entirely on location and almost totally in natural light. This invests the film with a darkness more than needed for a visual medium. But it was also needed to lend credibility to the film. The poverty that comes across is appalling for viewers like us, cocooned in the comfort of an air-conditioned theatre in a metro city. Animesh Bose’s cinematography is brilliant. The span of the film –one hour of screening time – is just right. The drawbacks are – repetitive shots of villagers taking potshots at Vima, villagers chasing the young widow they have labeled a witch – her wig is atrocious, and an overdose of skin-show for Balika. One telling scene shows village women praising a little boy who has coined a slogan for Balika for having come out of her husband’s home. B.S. Tirthya’s musical score is uneven – too loud at times and controlled in others. Those who came in to watch Antardahan for sleaze and titillation, pulled by the “A” certificate on the posters, went home disappointed.
I would give the film a rating of six on ten.
Shoma A. Chatterji