The Tragedy of Marginalization

in 12nd Osian's-Cinefan Film Festival

by Shoma Chatterjee

Hansa (Hindi) won the Best Film Award from the FIPRESCI Jury at the 12th Osians-Cinefans Festival of Indian, Asian and Arab Films. It marks the directorial debut of Manav Kaul, who has a very good track record in Hindi theatre as a playwright and director.

The story revolves around Hansa, a naughty boy who often misses school to play pranks and boss around his simple friend. His 17-year-old sister Cheeku is anxious about their father who has gone missing for almost a year, their heavily pregnant mother who is completely bedridden, and having to resist the sexual advances of a village elder their family is indebted to. The family house and land are threatened by the local lawyer who, with the support of village bigwigs, says he will claim it all against the loans their father made unless the money is returned by the end of the week. But no one knows what the truth is. Did the father run away because he could not repay his debts or look after his family? Or has he been thrown off a cliff, a modus operandi often used by powerful men to get rid of vulnerable villagers for their own selfish motives?

While Hansa goes about his pranks, Cheeku is truly concerned; she is intrigued by the stories floating around about her missing father as well as the note he left behind about leaving. Hansa falls into trouble when he steals the local cricketer-cum-bully’s lucky five-rupee coin and is beaten up by the young man. He refuses to give it back even when his timid friend asks him to, as he is more interested in seeing whether he can use the coin to bring down a ball hanging from a tree. The mother is never seen but her cries and whimpers of extreme pain come across vividly on the soundtrack. The absent father gradually becomes a powerful “presence”, as Cheeku begins to investigate his whereabouts and is determined to solve the mystery. The ending shows Cheeku boarding a long-distance bus with a bundle of clothes, in search of her father. The film ends on this note of uncertainty and intrigue.

The supporting characters — the village “idiot” who is mercilessly thrown off a cliff for trying to save Hansa from the bully, the money lender who feels up Cheeku on the slightest pretext when she goes to him for monetary help, and the shopkeeper who tries to appease the bigwigs — are true to stereotype, yet distinctive by virtue of the distant little village they live in. The editing follows a slow, rhythmic pace in keeping with the demands of the script and to match the slow pace of life in the hills. The camera closes in when it needs to — such as when the idiot falls off the cliff — but keeps an observer’s distance with long shots and medium shots in the cricket scene. Scenes in which Hansa tries to excrete and vomit the coin he has swallowed are funny and ironic.

Another touching scene is the one in which the lecherous moneylender looks into the camera and we see him decorating something in front of him.  The impression is that he is performing some Pooja. But when the camera turns, we see him adorning Cheeku with crude rouge on her cheeks, her head covered with a cheap veil, her forehead decorated with a smudged bindi and her lips coloured while her face expresses deep anguish and disgust. She revolts suddenly, throws the veil away and runs out of the hut to her home in the hills.

The cast was almost totally composed of non-professional actors, which adds to the authenticity of the presentation. Their spontaneous performances sometimes give us the feeling of a candid camera following the characters. Brince’s low-key music adds to the mood of the film. The twists and turns that occur in the lives of Cheeku and Hansa build up slowly, shocking us with the contrast between their low-key handling and the bizarre nature of events.

What could be an ordinary film about an Indian village strikes a note of difference by virtue of its location, which we know little about. The setting is a remote Himalayan village in Kumaon at the northern tip of India which suffers from extreme winter, a lack of manpower, and extreme poverty waiting to be pounced on by the powers that be. The setting therefore functions like one of the characters in the film, because of the way that it influences and is influenced by the lives of the people.

The film’s seemingly simple storyline subtly underscores the tragedy of marginalization — financial, economic, social, environmental and filial — of two growing children in a beautifully eloquent and understated way, without sensationalizing or exaggerating the tragic situation at any point. The isolated, anachronistic setting indicates the hermetic quality of the location and its people by virtue of its positioning off the main highway of contemporary society. The director has succeeded in using the small town’s remote and distant ambience to expose the vulnerability of its people. The film’s slow, sometimes eerie and moody air evokes a sensibility which is richer and deeper than that of many city-centric films.