Achal Mishra latest and third feature film, Ri, set in Ladakh, is not so much to be watched as inhaled; it is not so much a film as it is vapour — there is nothing holding the film together except a singular conviction in sublime beauty and blue-drenched twilight. By sublime, I mean a very specific kind of beauty. That which strikes the fear of god in you; that beauty of which you are afraid. Say, a towering brown mountain in the distance, pressed up against a blue sky, slowly darkening into night, one shaft of light from the clouds firing up a patch on the peak, a patch that slowly recedes as the shaft thins into darkness, and the day collapses. And so begins Ri, which premiered at the recently concluded Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF).
Mishra is, without doubt nor exaggeration, one of India’s reigning image makers, a mascot for tender cinema. From his debut film Gamak Ghar and his sophomore stab Dhuin, both set in Darbhanga, his hometown, he has shown that a film can emerge from visuals, not like a story, but like that vapour; a shapeless vibe. His films are extended meditations, and have stretches of silence — ripe, careful compositions, and an unyielding love for those moments where day kisses night, twilight being his choice of lighting. There is no excitement by subtext, a disinterest in metaphors and a near total reliance on the gleaming surface of the film.
In Ri, Mishra takes his preoccupations to their snapping point, and pushes further. The film, entirely shot in the twilight, is consummately amorphous, where his earlier films had, at least, the decency of a story around which he bloomed blue. He punctures these images with people — sometimes talking, sometimes waiting, sometimes seen but not heard, sometimes heard but not seen, with Ladakhi, Balti, Hindi, English, German, and Kannada swirling around. In the background, you hear Hindi cinema music and the azaan — Leh is a Buddhist majority district, while Kargil is a Muslim majority district. People seen once are not seen again, what we last heard of them not developed further, folded over. Abhinav Jha, a Mishra fixture since Gamak Ghar, is seen walking from the airport, a trolley in tow, a moon creaming up in the sky, in a long shot, the sound of his breath pushing past the soundscape, that heaviness in the light-headed Leh. We know nothing more than his arrival. We hear a Ladakhi family making meal preparations, speaking of wolves. Later, there is a shot of a wolf taken by his friend Morup Namgail, a wildlife photographer.
Mishra does not allow us the intimacy of getting to know these people, framing them often at an anaesthetic distance. We don’t have access to their eyes, for example. In a cafe, a man is seated, two mugs on his table, a kind of aimless waiting. Above him are string lights, and on both sides of him are white walls. As his sunglasses slip from his head to his nose, the lights, too, spark off. (Mishra says this was accidental.) We are not allowed to press up closer to him, to know more, to even intuit more.
Speaking about Ri after the screening, Mishra referred to his attempts to create a new kind of movie, that which is produced without stress, with joy and lubricated ease. An essential component of that is a less-than-four person crew. While editing Dhuin in Leh, Ladakh, he cobbled together Ri. He shot it over the span of June-July this year, travelling with some of his friends — musician Tajdar Junaid, cinematographer Abhinandan Sharma, production designer Avni Goyal, and sound recordist Rohandeep Saxena. Sometimes, framed in the foreground is an open door of a car, or a bonnet. In many places, the camera is allowed to be shaken slightly. Some of his scene transitions are overlays — an innovation in his filmography — producing a hypnotic disorientation. For example, there is a shot of the camera moving sideways, overlaid by a shot of the camera moving forward, tossing us into some dough-stretched dimension. In the windswept Nubra valley, when Junaid placed his roncoco, a South American stringed instrument, up in the air, the wind got tangled in the instrument and began producing sounds which were recorded and used in this movie.
There is both an over indulgence and an overwhelming faith in the filmmaker on the power of the image, so pungent it can be that it strips context away. The psychological pressure emanates not from character or plot, but colour, but beauty, the blue producing an alienating serenity. But what do we do with an hour and a half of this beauty? How many mountains, how many sunsets, how much blue can a film’s frame sustain? In that sense, Ri is Mishra’s most trying film. Because it operates from a very provocative idea — that beauty is enough.