Director: Gurvinder Singh
Actor: Kishan Katwal, Monisha Mukundan
Bitter Chestnut (Khanaur) begins with a disclaimer we don't generally see in a feature film: that the people you will see in it are real, and they all play themselves. I have a disclaimer too. Last year, I did a story on Singh — one of the most important Indian filmmakers of our times who made films such as Anhe Ghorey Da Daan (2011) and Chauthi Koot (2015)— moving to the mountains in Himachal Pradesh, where he runs a cafe, and where he was making a film with the people of the place.
In Bir, which lies at the intersection of new developments and a traditional way of life, Singh had found juxtapositions that seemed ripe for cinema. And in the teenage boy (named Kishan) who works in the cafe, who dreams of a better life in a big city, he had found his protagonist. Something like a narrative had emerged. Having got a real sense of the place after spending a day there, I was always going to see the film with slightly different eyes. It wasn't just formally fascinating — as Singh put it, "an exchange between real life and fiction" — it was also about the resourcefulness of filmmaking at a time when fundings, state or otherwise, for independent cinema has shrunk.
An important aspect of this kind of approach is the idea of acceptance. There is no good or bad. It is what it is. Take it or leave it. These are real people who are shown doing things they do in real life, going about their everyday businesses. There was a script, but the actors have mostly been allowed to be themselves in front of the camera. A discerning audience member may even spot technical 'mistakes' that you don't expect from professional actors. There is an honesty about it. But at which point does real life cease being interesting?
For instance, we see Kishan's brother dealing with the khacchar sellers, or his mother's negotiations with the weaver. But they don't go beyond ethnographic snippets because the film doesn't allow us to know them well enough to care for them. The only other character we get a real sense of as a person is Monisha, who runs the cafe (a stand-in for Singh's co-founder of the cafe, who passed away). If Kishan symbolises the youth of Bir who wants to move out, Monisha is the exact opposite — the English speaking city-dweller who has come to spend the winter of her life in the hills.
The film comes alive in some of the parts featuring Kishan, and you see why Singh is a specialist in the way he can use a non-actor. The film's vision of its protagonist is grounded in hard truths, but it is also romantic. There is a roughness in his face and yet a purity and a vulnerability — big, soulful eyes, longish hair and a wispy thin teenage moustache — which Sandeep GN Yadav's camera captures beautifully.
The film comes alive in some of the parts featuring Kishan, and you see why Singh is a specialist in the way he can use a non-actor. The film's vision of its protagonist is grounded in hard truths, but it is also romantic. There is a roughness in his face and yet a purity and a vulnerability — big, soulful eyes, longish hair and a wispy thin, teenage moustache — which Sandeep GN Yadav's camera captures beautifully. The dreaminess of Kishen makes for an uneasy mix with the film's ethnographic bits.
But Singh's films aren't about just story and character. They are also about the treatment, the spaces and the atmosphere. The filmmaker has spoken about how Bitter Chestnut is a departure in terms of loosening up on the precision of compositions, over which he has shown masterful control over in his previous films. You can see it in the simplicity with which it captures the spectacular landscape or the segments featuring Kishan's home and family. And yet, one of the most memorable shots is full of technical bravura, where the camera glides into the cafe in the night when Kishen works alone in the kitchen. The sounds of the crickets (Sushmit 'Bob' Nath) are drowned out by a low-key soundtrack (Marc Marder), as he looks out, staring into the blank space.
Could Singh's film have been more effective had it been more self-reflexive, where the film laid open its process as well? Maybe it should have milked the paragliding scene in Bir, which Singh told me had got Kishan interested, more. A sleepy Himachali town becoming a global paragliding hotspot, other than adding a touch of outlandish, would have lent itself to the young boy's dreams of breaking away. (We see it only as a passing reference). But then again, Singh, with a script by Gayatri Chatterjee, seems almost defiant in its simplicity, in its refusal to do anything dramatic and flashy.