Director: Akshay Indikar
Cast: Neel Deshmukh, Anushree Wani, Rekha Thakur
Childhood is usually the most dynamic phase of existence. Even those of us who grow up ball-and-chained to desk jobs begin our lives running and jumping, hopping and swinging — especially in that mythical land that is the grandparents' home. That's the kind of situation eight-year-old Dighu (Neel Deshmukh), from Pune, finds himself in. With his mother (Rekha Thakur) and older sister Durga (Anushree Wani), he lands up at his grandparents' village on the Konkan coast, filled with "roaring sounds of the sea". The setting seems ripe for a boys' own adventure. Let me pause at this point and ask you what kind of cinematography might complement the events to follow.
Something filled with life and constant movement? We get that when Dighu and Durga go to Goa. The bespectacled boy stares, fascinated, at a huge painting of an old man's face, with warts and lines and experiences the boy cannot begin to comprehend. There's a carnival of sorts. People are in costumes and masks. Jagadeesh Ravi's handheld cinematography, accompanied by rapid cutting, practically induces motion sickness. If we are meant to feel Dighu's excitement and giddiness, we feel it. But this stretch turns out to be the exception in Sthalpuran – Chronicle of Space, directed by Akshay Indikar, who also co-wrote the film (with Tejashri Kamble), edited it, and did the sound design.
This grandly extroverted sequence is nothing close to what Dighu is like. He's an inward-looking child whose "thoughts" are revealed through diary entries, which are periodically flashed on screen, one "thought" at a time. Here's what he's written on June 7: Mother hasn't told us if we'll ever return to Pune. This is how the "plot" develops, with very few spoken words, as when Dighu's mother receives advice from her mother. Get married again. It's hard to live alone. Dighu's father has gone away, and no one knows where. And at the noisy factory where Dighu's mother is employed as a labourer, she unburdens herself to a woman who seems to understand her circumstances. All Dighu can think of is that he doesn't like his mother talking to a man at the factory for longer than necessary.
This introverted boy is, fittingly, captured by an introverted camera. For the most part, the frames are static and the wide shots are held for so long that the occasional movement (say, a gentle pan across a room) begins to resemble seismic activity. The most representative sequence in the film may be the one where Dighu watches a mythological play. The framing dismantles the very idea of theatre as spectacle, enclosed by a proscenium. Instead, the camera goes close, real close. Instead of watching characters roaming about a stage, we zoom in to their faces. Instead of the panoramic, we get the personal.
And this sets Sthalpuran apart from other films of this nature, like the Apu vehicles by Ray (note, again, the sister's name) or Abbas Kiarostami's child's-view dramas or even Avinash Arun's Killa, which was also about a boy who finds himself in a new place, and dealing with the absence of his father. This isn't the chronicle of Dighu. As the title suggests, this is the chronicle of space: the turbulent interior spaces of Dighu's mind, contrasted with the calm surroundings the boy finds himself in. Outside, the sun peeks through trees during a boat ride and a spider weaves its web and even the occasional thunderclap is not so much menacing as a welcome sign of rain to get drenched in. Inside, Hindustani classical music plays soothingly on a radio.
Here is a sample "space", from Dighu's classroom. The blackboard is in the upper left, occupying maybe a quarter of the frame. The teacher is in the extreme right. And in the space between, students move back and forth, as their pictures are taken. Another "space": Dighu stands with a catapult in his hand, facing the horizon, as a big, bent tree snakes up to the sky. If nothing seems to "happen", that's exactly it. This is the diary entry from July 6: Nothing. Is Dighu thinking about his father as he stands beside that tree and stares at nothing? His grandmother tells him that what you have lost, you will find at that very place. But what if the loss isn't a thing but a person? What if it's a father?
You may wonder why Durga doesn't seem to be affected as much. Is it because she is more practical, more outward-looking? Or is it just that we are more inside Dighu's "space" than hers? Durga is seen doing very tangible things like making Dighu read an Akbar/Birbal story out loud. She doesn't seem to question the story. But look at Dighu as his grandfather teaches him how to tell time, using a big clock. He asks why there are 24 hours (and not, say, 25). And when his grandmother narrates a story about a shepherd and gold coins, the soundtrack makes us hear the bells on faraway sheep. Durga seems to be hearing the story. Dighu seems to be imagining it.
Another technique in the film is the play with focus — it keeps moving between definite and indefinite spaces. And the women are often less defined. Consider the shot where the camera stays on Dighu as his mother walks about in the background, a blurred-out figure doing the chores. Or the shots around a coming-of-age ceremony, where all the women are out of focus. Are we witnessing Dighu's self-absorption (not that that's a sin in a little boy) and feelings of alienation? The deeply felt Sthalpuran, then, is its own kind of diary. It fills up the pages of Dighu's life beyond the lines he's jotted down.