Law and Love

in 34th Toronto International Film Festival

by Jan Schulz-Ojala

Toronto may not be the capital of Canada but it’s the capital of lonely men – at least this fall on screen at TIFF. Just like the lonely struggle for social attention, the films with this theme had a battle for title recognition that had festivals goers smiling: Michael Douglas celebrated his comeback as a lead actor in Solitary Man, Colin Firth grieved the loss of his lover in A Single Man, and the Coen Brothers proved that remaining alone is alright too – as they showed in their super dark comedy A Serious Man – as long as the betrayed husband and ridiculous father goes to work every day and makes money for his so-called family.

But loneliness isn’t the privilege of only white Anglo-Saxon professors or car salesmen. You can easily be single, solitary and quite serious elsewhere, for example, as a forest ranger in remote India. In Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s first feature The Man Beyond the Bridge (Paltadacho Munis), it is Vinayak (Chitranjan Giri) whose life slowly passes by since his wife died. When he is not patrolling the national forest, once a week he goes shopping in a nearby village, chats very little with an old aunt, and in the evenings his small house in the forest awaits him, silent as a tomb.

One night something strange mingles with the usual noise of the animals. A savage is roaming the grounds: a young woman who cannot speak and is unwelcome wherever she goes. Mad people – as a rule – bring bad luck to communities. But as the director and writer Shetgaonkar kindly suggests, a madwoman may bring luck to a solitary man like Vinayak. First he chases her away like everyone else (okay, without throwing stones as the local brats do), then he starts to feed her and lets her sleep in his house, and after a while something like love arises and she gets pregnant. Of course such concubinage, moreover with an untouchable woman, is completely against the laws of the villagers who judge his behavior both insane and sinful. True, they are building a holy shrine with timber stolen from the forest – but doesn’t it look like a minor infraction compared to what’s going on the ranger’s house?

It’s a simple drama, and a very quiet one. Starting almost like a fairy tale, but depicting precisely a portrait of everyday life, Shetgaonkar evolves a panorama of contrasts – community against individual freedom, religion against rationality, laws against love – but the film doesn’t lecture its audience at any time. Everything remains in the frame – and such beautiful frames – of a social metaphor: The Man Beyond the Bridge shows, as far from Hollywood as from Bollywood, how a modest man gets into conflict with his world, the choices he makes and, of course, the price he has to pay. The resolution is perhaps the saddest happy ending. Does he at least overcome his loneliness? Loneliness is a silent animal with many faces, and one of them is always turned towards you.

Edited by: Steven Yates