By Uday Bhatia
We always say that there is one world but that’s not true. Each of us are a world of our own." The speaker is sitting with a companion by the side of a road, his back to us, so we can’t see his face. But we can hear the resignation in his voice; understandable, given that Jaan (Abhijit Das in a deeply moving turn) has been pushed by fate to breaking point over the course of Tora’s Husband (2022). His words also suggest a way of thinking about Rima Das’ cinema, her interest in human relations over plot and spectacle, and the way her camera regards everything before it with a clear-eyed curiosity.
Tora (Tarali Kalita Das) and her husband Abhay—whom everyone calls Jaan—are at the film’s centre but there are so many other worlds we get glimpses of. The baker at Jaan’s restaurant, who turns up drunk not because he hates the place but because he’s so much better at his job than his co-workers that it depresses him. The domestic worker curious about the species of plant she’s watering. The troubled young man standing in peak traffic, dispensing doomsday advice to the world. Jaan’s mother, whose morning routine is captured in a few deft strokes: singing while fanning herself, scaring off monkeys, lovingly feeding the cow (Jaan watches her do this, and, though he’s unhappy with her for leaving home after a tiff with Tora, in the next scene he stops his car to pick up a calf that has strayed on to the road).
This isn’t the only time we see Jaan’s protective instinct. When a customer at his restaurant is rude to a waiter, he asks him to be more civil and ends up fighting. He refuses to let go of any of his staff, even though business is tepid since reopening after the covid-19 lockdown. He buys footballs for the local children. He’s an involved, loving, if erratic, father to his own kids. But Jaan can’t begin to fix his relationship with his wife, which has deteriorated because of his drinking. Every night he leaves Tora and the kids at home and gets wasted with his friends. He says he needs it—maybe he feels he deserves it. But Tora isn’t under any such illusions. She explains to a friend: “He’s a good man but a bad husband."
This is the fourth film from Das, who broke through with her second film, Village Rockstars (2017), which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and won the National Award for best feature. Unlike that film and Bulbul Can Sing (2018), Tora’s Husband has an urban setting and focuses on adults rather than children or adolescents (though Tora and Jaan’s young son and toddler daughter are frequent comic relief). Das felt a responsibility to make a film that captured both the reality and the tenor of covid times. “Since the wounds of the pandemic are still fresh, we are keen to move forward," she said in an interview to Platform. “But there will be a time when we will make pandemic films based on our imagination. I wanted to tell the story of a global pandemic in real locations, natural conditions, in real time."
Tora’s Husband joins Joji (2021), Aarkkariyam (2021), Bheed (2022) and a handful of other depictions of Indian life in the covid years. Das shot it over two years, between lockdowns, with a small crew. During that time, she lost her father; the film is dedicated to him. Though in the film the lockdown has lifted and normal life has resumed, the visual evidence of the pandemic is still part of the landscape: masks, hazmat suits, ambulances ferrying covid-positive patients to makeshift wards.
Das allows the viewer to join dots. We can assume, for instance, that Jaan’s drinking has picked up during lockdown, just as it did in many households across the country—his friends comment on the weight he has put on, and Tora’s complaints about how their relationship has changed indicate that alcohol is a recent problem. The mental strain of living through covid informs the film. Everyone seems on edge. Tora often appears on the brink of exploding (Das cuts several scenes at the moment when something dramatic seems about to happen). Jaan mentions that he has thought of ending his life. “I am desperate and I feel useless," another man says. A domestic worker delivers a public rebuke to everyone who’s shunning her after she returns from a covid ward.
Indie directors often start out wearing multiple hats, but retain only a couple once they have had some success. In her last three films, Das has been writer, cinematographer, editor and producer. She has perhaps the most unforced film-making style of any Indian director working today. Her camera will wander, linger on a cloud, a sleepy cat, a blind singer. Towards the end of the film, husband and wife exchange a series of texts. Relations have frayed to the point that falling sick with covid is actually a blessing, a chance to get away and reflect. With this distance comes tenderness. “I’ll bake you a cake once you’re back," he texts. Then, more poetically, “Both of us are under the same sky."
Tora’s Husband is in theatres.
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- FIRST PUBLISHED30.09.2023 | 10:36 AM IST