It is not very often that you are treated to an Indian film as meticulously constructed as debutante Achal Mishra’s Maithili language drama Gamak Ghar(translated to ‘village house’ and pronounced as ‘गामक घर’).The young filmmaker’s control over the cinematic form is impressive, especially his mis-en-scene. The sources of his inspiration also filled me with much delight.
Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of my most favourite contemporary directors and I spent a better part of the last month devouring his oeuvre. I am still under the spell of his subtle, minimalist cinema that unexpectedly leaves you emotionally wrecked, much like another Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu’s films. Many a movie buff has lamented over the absence of such intimate domestic dramas in Indian cinema, despite the large potential. Imagine my delight on spotting the influence of these legendary filmmakers in Gamak Ghar.
The film unfolds over three distinct phases spanning two decades with each phase being set in a different season (summer, autumn and winter) and framed in a different aspect ratio, paralleling the prevalent mood of that phase. The three parts aren’t entirely similar to the traditional three-act structure as an unconventional narrative is adopted here. Fascinatingly, the inanimate village house is the protagonist and we get to know it more intimately than any of its inhabitants, who, as the years pass by, abandon the ancestral property. It has been built with much love and care by the deceased patriarch Kedar Nath Mishra who was also the director’s grandfather in real life making the story a deeply personal one. Blurring the lines of fact and fiction, the cast of mostly non-actors interact with a believability that lends the drama an unmatched authenticity.
The film begins in the summer of 1998 when the mood is rather upbeat in the house with the extended family gathered during the school vacations to celebrate the birth of a newborn. It is the most evocative part of the film. Shot in a squarish aspect ratio, the intimacy within the family gets highlighted. But more importantly, the vintage squarish frame in itself heightens the nostalgia beautifully evoked during this segment.
Gamak Ghar’s use of colour in the three different parts is significant in its overall form. The palette of vibrant yellow, red and green of the first upbeat phase is contrasted with the dull whites and blacks of the later more somber parts. Also, the first segment has a charming feel of an old photo album with its faded shades, a major achievement given that the film was shot on a digital camera (Canon C200). The colourist Mahak Gupta’s name appears as the very first in the opening credits and rightly so! In a beautiful scene in the second phase set in 2010, we see the same frames but now in the form of photographs in a family album as Guddu narrates the story behind each image to a curious nephew.
It is this boxy frame that perhaps alludes even more to Ozu as he adamantly stuck to it throughout his career. He masterfully composed his many indoor scenes and staged the action in them using the depth of field that these dimensions particularly allow. Mishra and his cinematographer Anand Bansal make use of this somewhat lost art of using the deep space to stage their scenes more common in the Silent era.
This is particularly observed in the early parts of the film when the youngest uncle comes home from the market on his scooter. Here we see action taking place in two planes in the same frame. Guddu (Abhinav Jha), the oldest boy in the house, looks on in the background waiting eagerly for him to be told to turn the scooter around by his uncle in the foreground.
In the next comparatively lengthy shot too we see an earthy red matka in the foreground first drawing all our attention which then shifts to the same uncle walking towards it from the background, but before he drinks water from it, he hands over the bag to his mother who meets him at a point between his entry and the matka. After handing over the bag he finally drinks water and joins Guddu as they exit from the same point of entry.
Both these shots unfold in a single long take. This dynamic use of the space of the frame, by using the characters and objects within it, makes us identify the ancestral home in relation to the people that occupy it.
The compact frame is filled up by people to depict the closeness within the family pictorially like when the uncle, who’s now a doctor and lives in the city, chats with the other men in the verandah. The ensemble staging, carefully designed to balance the frame, makes us see the faces of the characters who would be speaking in the scene. That the doctor is the only one among them who has migrated to the city is also subtly depicted by making him sit separately from all others on a chair.
The stationary camera, another one of Ozu’s trademark, is so non-intrusively placed that we almost feel like being physically present in that space and time, enhancing our sense of nostalgia. The camera doesn’t even turn to follow the characters, instead letting sound fill in the gaps of the action taking place off screen like when the scooter parked in the front-yard needs a push-start. Also, the house being the protagonist here, we never get more than a mid-shot of the other characters in action. The rare close-ups instead capture the potato fritters, fish etc. being cooked for the feast giving us a wholesome sensorial experience. Every nook and corner of the home is vividly photographed. The frames in the first segment are always tinged with a sense of romance for the old structure – its wooden doors and windows, bags kept over cupboards and other vintage features, quite meticulously designed (Avni Goyal) right down to the mosquito nets. All of it is later contrasted with the abandoned, almost dilapidated condition of the home in the final part of the film.
Despite the upbeat mood, the first segment is languidly paced, mirroring the rhythms of the quotidian activities of a village summer in rural Bihar. The pacing only keeps dropping further as the sense of attachment the family has with the home gradually erodes. We are made to stay with the shots even after the characters have exited the frame, juxtaposing the space with and without the people who call it home within the same shot.
The photograph is a recurring motif in the film. The photo that the whole extended family poses for in 1998, ends up becoming the last time they all come together. In the next visit in 2010, we see groups within the family clicking their own pictures separately. The still camera also becomes an indication of the time jumps, with Guddu finally taking a picture on his phone in the last part set in 2019. Again, the family photo is a device borrowed from Ozu who used it to evoke nostalgia in several of his films. Kore-eda also made use of the same in Still Walking (2008) lending it his own touch.
But the most impressive of all influences is the simplicity with which both Ozu and Kore-eda manage to make their cinema resonate emotionally. Gamak Ghar’s minimalist approach manages to evoke a deep sense of loss for the growing disconnect with one’s roots. This ability to connect and say a lot without apparently trying much is one to be treasured. Apart from the music being a tad bit omnipresent and the sound design a little overdone, there’s not much to fault with the effort. A sense of tranquility envelops the entire breadth of the film that belies the director’s age.
Achal Mishra with his solid grasp on the medium and a poetic sensibility is without doubt one of the most promising filmmakers in India.
PS – The film is currently playing on Mubi.