Director: Ashish Pant
Writer: Ashish Pant
Cast: Saloni Batra, Nehpal Gautam, Vikas Kumar, Anushree Kushwaha, Sadanand Patil
Cinematographer: Pawel Kacprzak
Editor: Vibhav Nigam
Even before the car accident that shakes the foundation of their marriage, the union of Lucknow couple Shirish (Vikas Kumar) and Geeta Mathur (Saloni Batra) appears to be on thin ice. She was born into wealth; he married into it. She's meek, his controlling nature is masked by the slightest veneer of concern. Her pregnancy makes her unsteady on her feet, but you can tell that she's been unsure of herself for much longer. He prizes the stability of future comforts enough that he's willing to be reckless with what he has now.
Uljhan's opening scene introduces two elements bound to elicit frustration — slow-moving traffic and being put on hold indefinitely during a phone call — building on this unease to steadily create an atmosphere of disquiet and dread. One night, driving home from a party with Shirish in the passenger seat, Geeta runs over a rickshaw puller she failed to spot. The sequence is staged like a horror movie, in near-darkness, with pouring rain and ominous rumblings of thunder. Evidence of the couple's crime lingers in the form of a bloody handprint. When the injured man's relatives show up at their house, its latched gate looms large in front of Geeta as if a construct of her mind, shielding her from terror that lurks behind it. Shirish wants to pretend like the accident never happened, but her guilt won't let her do the same. There's a striking bit of symmetry in Geeta almost taking a life while on the brink of bringing a new one into the world but the film doesn't really explore whether her anxieties about motherhood overlap with her stress over the accident.
Writer-director Ashish Pant has an eye for staging, smartly employing space and composing his frames to complement the film's larger messaging. Strategically-placed barriers within scenes are used to create a split-screen effect, illustrating the gulf between the rich and poor. In one such shot, Shirish, occupies the left side of the frame, describing the four-bedroom house he plans to build on a plot of land, while on the right stands a mud hut built by an illegal encroacher at that spot. Windows and doors are recurring motifs, with the underprivileged on the outside looking in at a life they'll never have, and the wealthy shutting their doors on the less fortunate, using their privilege to insulate themselves. Pant understands the power of silence, and pairs it with haunting images in a long tracking shot that conveys his themes more effectively than words could. When the rickshaw puller's brother explains that the man was only lying on the road to escape the claustrophobia of his slum, his words resonate in a later, wordless scene in which he's taken in by the expanse of Geeta's lush backyard.
A stretch towards the end feels overlong, a heightened dramatic scene out of place in Pant's otherwise quietly assured debut. Yet the film is effective enough to get us to consider the cost of a human life, and how the rich, rummaging through their purses for spare change, will always come up short.
The Dharamshala International Film Festival is on from November 4 to 14. You can watch the films being screened here.