Adh Chanani Raat, Gurvinder Singh's third film in his Punjabi-language trilogy exploring the grind of rural life in the state, is a fiercely tender bookend to his first. In Anhe Ghore Da Daan (2011), the city of Bhatinda is shrouded in fog and leached of all colour, as though its residents are living in a kind of purgatory. It's only when a rich landlord's bulldozer arrives to raze a poor labourer's home that you begin to understand why this place looks like a ghost town — its residents and their lives are being erased out of existence while they're still alive. Based on Gurdial Singh's novel of the same name, Adh Chanani Raat, by contrast, begins with a homecoming. Released from prison after 15 years, Modan (Jatinder Mauhar)'s memory of his village is as fresh as the day he left it. One of the first things he does is ask about the family's ancestral home in Daroli, and on finding out it lies decrepit, begins to rebuild it. The landlords are still around, and have pushed Modan's family to the outskirts. But in reconstructing his home, he shows a defiance that the helpless labourers of Anhe Ghore Da Daan couldn't.
This underlying defiance gives Adh Chanani Raat reason to zoom in to the violence rather than letting it unfurl at the edges of the frame and focusing on its seismic effects on the characters, like the other instalments of the trilogy do. Singh's talent for powerful compositions comes to the fore in a flashback sequence that reveals why Modan was incarcerated. A shot that shows him avenging his father's death doesn't include his face, only his hand wrapped around the village chief's throat, with his booming voice coming from above and framing the murder like an act of divine retribution.
Once released, Modan's clenched jaw suggests a still-simmering anger, now directed towards his older brother Sajjan (Davinder Purba), who works for the landlords. He repeatedly addresses him by his full name, as though addressing a stranger. Recurring sequences depict Modan emerging out of shadows, as if to suggest that he can never fully leave them behind. He appears to, at least for a while, moving into his ancestral home with his mother, getting married, finding the happiness that eluded him before. His steely grimness morphs into contentment. Throughout the film, he and his friends compare the landlords to various wild animals. But if they're snakes in the grass, Modan is a leopard who can't change his spots. When they continue to make his life hard, he fights back in small ways before deciding it's time for drastic measures.
Singh continues to employ long stretches of silence, though he lets the characters in this film confide their hurts and vulnerabilities in a way they haven't in his previous works. Still, it's a wordless sequence of Modan's mother entering her ancestral home for the first time in seven years and sitting on the bed that proves to be the film's most affecting, reiterating the trilogy's theme of people who just want to belong, for whom even a safe space seems unimaginable. "One can get attached even to hell," says a character in Adh Chanani Raat. It's the throughline of Gurvinder Singh's trilogy — people who forge a home in the harshest of conditions. Modan, however, has found his little corner of paradise. And he won't move even if it kills him.
Adh Chanani Raat is playing in the Harbour section of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.