The first thing you realise about experiencing a film festival online is that it unlocks the luxury of choice. There's no set schedule to adhere to, no order in which the films must play out daily. With 120 titles to choose from, you become both, the programmer and the audience. Four of the Indian films I've watched so far at the Busan International Film Festival all depict isolation, loss and grief in some way, a natural outcome of the past year perhaps — the pandemic not only gives Bengali mystery House Of Time its setting but also propels its character development — but they all stand on their own terms as impressive character studies set in immersive worlds. Here's a roundup of The Rapist, Pedro, House Of Time and The Road To Kuthriyar:
Director: Aparna Sen
Dread will coil itself tightly around your insides and refuse to ease up for a significant portion of The Rapist, a harrowing examination of the anatomy of rape, the psyche of its perpetrators and the trauma experienced in its aftermath. The film creates an atmosphere of foreboding by unfolding in a linear manner, reliant on viewers' having registered its title and thus anticipating the horrors that await its protagonist. When university professor Naina Malik (Konkona Sensharma), agrees to go to the outskirts of Noida to help her college janitor resolve a police case, the scene induces the first of many anxiety spikes. It's a given that each subsequent event — Naina telling her husband not to pick her up, her waiting for a bus on an isolated road, two bikers making lewd comments at her — will be catalogued with increasing alarm.
It's easy to term the eventual assault inevitable with the luxury of this foresight but The Rapist smartly counters that line of thinking by detailing a world in which circumstances are irrelevant. No woman is truly safe. Strangers rape, as do spouses.
Divided into chapters, the film is unrelenting in its depictions of brutality. A chapter called The Incident ends without actually depicting the incident, mirroring how Naina has blocked it out, but violent glimpses of it still appear via flashbacks and dreams. The title of another chapter, Trauma, is just as applicable to the film as a whole. If there's a single image that encapsulates the scope of the humiliation that Naina faces, it's that of a lawyer making his case in court by holding up the underwear she was wearing the night she was attacked. The gaze through which these events are depicted, though unflinching, is never exploitative.
Sensharma, playing the role of a woman who finds herself in impossibly cruel circumstances for the third time this year after Geeli Pucchi and Mumbai Diaries 26/11, turns in an expertly calibrated performance, caught between anger and abject misery. Her character occupies the devastating space between birth and death — pregnant with her rapist's child, fighting to send him to the gallows. The decision to give her rapist (Tanmay Dhanania) a tragic backstory sounds repugnant on paper, but in the film, Naina's decision to excavate her attacker's past is her attempt to make sense of a senseless tragedy. She can only move forwards by going back. Once the rapist is declared guilty, through Naina's daily interrogations of him, his family and friends, writer-director Aparna Sen proceeds to put society and the legal system on trial.
A few plot points, including one involving Naina's husband (Arjun Rampal) and a lawyer, feel superfluous, but the film adroitly navigates complex issues to which it knows there are no easy answers. Bleak and often acutely distressing, The Rapist is hard to watch. But it's persuasive in its urgent appeal to not look away.
Director: Natesh Hegde
Kannada film Pedro is a crushing, slow-burn portrait of a man who realises he has outlived his usefulness to his community and is now a liability. Its protagonist (Gopal Hegde) is initially so inconspicuous, he struggles to make his presence felt even in a film bearing his name. He's invisible, sometimes literally — the film opens with him out of frame, fixing an electrical wire in the downpour as his boss watches from below. The village leader, Hegde (Ramakrishna Bhat Dundi), driving by a few moments later doesn't even acknowledge Pedro, but instead asks his boss to send him over to work on his farm, knowing that he won't be able to say no to an order. "If you ask me to, I will," says the unassuming electrician. When he finally alights into the frame, the back of his raincoat reads "wolf", ironic for a man who has so far been as meek as a sheep.
When Pedro is eventually asked to guard Hegde's farm, it's easy to assume that the job, which involves hunting monkeys and wild boars, will push him one step closer to becoming that wolf. But that's not the story writer-director Natesh Hegde wants to tell. Ill-suited to the role of a hunter, Pedro soon becomes the hunted. A costly mistake gives him the visibility (and increased scrutiny) that has so far eluded him.
The film's lack of a background score lets the natural sounds, such as the chirping of crickets and the patter of rainfall, breathe life into the gentle rhythms of the village, but also makes the man-made noises more ominous by comparison. In one scene, Pedro's brother (Nagaraj Hegde) helps him spray pesticide into the areca nut trees, each thwack of the pump punctuating his accusations. In another, Pedro's feet crunch the gravel menacingly as he stalks and prepares to poison a boar. Pedro himself is often framed behind the window grills of his house, in the narrow sliver between two walls, sandwiched tightly between two men on a scooter — visual depictions of just how trapped he becomes. There's a gnawing sadness that seeps into the film, an effective snapshot of just how isolating and cruel community living can be and just how desperate man can grow in his effort to truly feel seen.
Directors: Sarmistha Maiti, Rajdeep Paul
The Groundhog Day (1993) template of being trapped in a time loop and forced to relive the same day over and over again lends itself to the horror genre so seamlessly — 2017 slasher Happy Death Day and its sequel used it to great effect — that it was only a matter of time before filmmakers used it as a metaphor for pandemic-induced weariness.
House Of Time takes the familiar sights of a doctor, an image that's become particularly reassuring over the past year, and that of a person in full PPE gear, and uses them as the starting point for its tale of dread. When they encounter each other during a morning jog, the unnamed doctor (Janardhan Ghosh) is irritable and fatigued, reeling from the toll of being a frontline worker during the pandemic and precisely the kind of curmudgeon in need of a transformative Groundhog Day experience. He brusquely dismisses the woman (Tannistha Biswas)'s pleas for help, after which she hits him on the head. He wakes up in a house occupied by his abductor, an amnesiac older woman (Sreelekha Mukherji), whom she insists he help, and a young girl (Ahana Karmakar).
The film crafts a steadily unnerving atmosphere, dropping breadcrumbs about the true nature of the house — the three women address each other as 'mamoni', the Bengali word for 'mother', hinting at the structure's atemporality. However, its insistence on on-the-nose dialogues and pointed explanations somewhat deflate the air of mystery. A reliance on stock horror movie imagery such as a large spider crawling over a clock, a young girl reciting a poem in an eerie monotone and a row of dolls sitting on a shelf, begins to feel like overkill. The characters briefly reference Covid misconceptions, last year's migrant crisis and the struggles of online schooling, but the film doesn't provide nuanced commentary on any of these topics. Instead, the focus is on the doctor's reactions to these issues, and his gradually softening attitudes are parlayed convincingly into a larger character arc. What House Of Time also captures well is the isolation and lethargy of pandemic life, in which each day blurs indistinctly into the next. As one character wrly puts it: In real life, the apocalypse is boring, monotonous, like a slow-paced art-house film.
Director: Bharat Mirle
A protagonist undertakes a long journey into the vast wilderness only to emerge with a renewed sense of community. The premise is a familiar one but writer-director Bharat Mirle infuses it with freshness, a cheeky sense of humour, and a bold mid-film genre swerve from feature to documentary in his tender drama The Road To Kuthriyar.
The first time researcher Dhruv (Dhruv Athreye) meets Dorai (Chinna Dorai), a tribal man meant to accompany him on his year-long survey of Tamil Nadu's Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary, it's an odd couple pairing for the ages. Told to look out for a man in a red shirt, Dhruv waits at the designated spot for a while, the sweeping camera movements mirroring his roving eyes before eventually zooming in on a stranger dressed in green. When Dhruv discovers that this man is who he's been looking for, he asks him why he isn't wearing a red shirt. "But I am," comes the sincere reply as Dorai lifts up his green shirt to show off the red one underneath. Dorai and his fellow villagers are the source of much of the film's humour, but its gaze is affectionate, gently capturing their idiosyncrasies without mocking them.
The portions set inside the sanctuary are strikingly shot, showcasing the beauty of nature but also just how unforgiving it can be. The camera captures the reserve's large-scale grandeur — the two men appear like tiny figurines against its massive boulders — and its minutiae, like the tiny fish that nibble at Dhruv's toes. Viewers will find themselves cast in the role of dedicated vlog subscribers when the film switches from an omniscient third-person perspective to Dhruv's point of view as he describes how to identify porcupine scat or deduce whether a deer was attacked by a predator based on its injuries, a nice touch that renders his world more immersive.
Dhruv has spent his entire life cataloguing animals, but as the film unfolds, his time with Dorai makes him curious about his fellow men and the circumstances in which they live. The latter portions of The Road To Kuthriyar, shot documentary style for his vlog, are a firm indictment of a state that displaces tribal populations and profits from their addiction to alcohol. It's heavy, particularly given the lightness of the initial stretch, but devastatingly effective. The film, imbued with real heart, knows full well how to break ours.