A few months ago, through cinematographer Jay Oza’s Instagram stories, I found out how, in reasonably-budgeted commercial films, the shot of characters sitting in the back seat of a car is canned. This was in the context of Toofaan, the Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra film he shot. The movie had already released and he was uploading BTS footage of the method to the madness, which increasingly looked like madness that is appropriated as method. The characters in Toofaan, he shows us, are not actually sitting in a car cruising along a road; there is a green screen, and they are in a studio. To give the impression of street lights that dot any road at regular intervals, alternating pools of light with darkness, there are rotating, bounced sources of sodium vapour on both sides of the “car” that throw and retreat light; a rotating fan of photons. (From the blooper reel, it seems that Gehraiyaan, too, used this.)
While watching Achal Mishra’s second feature, the novella-length Dhuin, I was struck by this method, this madness, again. No character in this film, set in Darbhanga, is seated inside a car, of course — no one can afford it. Instead a group of young men are seated on an empty ground in front of a monument, their bikes parked nearby. The sun has set. Two of them are discussing Kiarostami, while our protagonist Pankaj (Abhinav Jha), a theater actor, looks lost, even ashamed of not knowing this name, these films, this fandom, this filmographic passion. Pankaj just wants to act. Learning, for him, is not watching movies but watching acting coaches wax eloquent on YouTube — it is a strangely vocational perspective he has. (Think of a painful moment in your life, stare at a source with concentration to brim tears, one coach suggests.) In this scene, every few moments we see the harsh light from a headlamp firing up their silhouettes, flaring onto their faces, only to find out later that the source of this was a car nearby — from the local driving institute — going in circles, again and again, throwing and retreating light.
To insist on twilight, to insist on lit faces, and to get both. The camera in Dhuin is not just more mobile — compared to the miniature-like stillness of his debut Gamak Ghar, a miniature-ness that was used to great effect in the design of its poster under which I am now writing this — it is also more agile. For example, the long shot following Pankaj in profile dipping as we slightly dip while walking, or the one trailing him from behind. As if Mishra is excited, energized even, having discovered a new language, like brandishing new vocabulary casually in conversations — it has its indulgence, but it also has its poetry. The camera lingers behind Pankaj, following him as he walks into the mist-laden night. A car comes along and the frame is lit up and then as the car recedes into the distance, the frame becomes increasingly darker, blacker, as though it is a fade-out. But it is not a fade out. Soon, another car comes along, and the frame blazes momentarily.
Before Mishra’s movies, Darbhanga was the stop-over bus station I was wary of, was warned to be careful at — on my rickety journey from Siliguri to Patna during a time of relatively high political tension in the state. Mishra softens the city, invoking tier-two modernity — the airport that opened in 2020, the train station by Pankaj’s house, the roadside stalls, the mist, the roads, the lack thereof — while making us aware of the tradition over which our century is overwritten — a character wants to shoot a film on the heritage sites of Darbhanga. Even the language in this movie has a gruff poetry. Offering his hungover friend what I assume is sweet curd as an antidote, Pankaj says, “Nasha phatega”, that the intoxication will explode.
Dhuin, like Gamak Ghar, also set in Darbhanga, is a mood piece. They insist on the tender, quiet image. The frames are soft, and your eyes move around the frame lazily, grasping the texture of the peeling walls, the algebra, physics, and mathematics guides the size of a fist being stored on top of the cupboard having outgrown their use but not their existence, the stickers on the wall, the patterns of the bedspread, the fluttering of the shawl. The music by Tajdar Junaid, who has also worked on Writing With Fire, India’s Oscar-nominated documentary, is used sparingly, so when it swells at the end, the impact is both of his artistry and of Mishra’s restraint.
There is a faint thread of a story weaving the images, but it is images Mishra is interested in, and through it, time. A glimpse at his personal Instagram account shows up photographs of a tree in Darbhanga — where he was born — being clicked over and over, in mist and sunlight, flooded Augusts and the flowering Spring. Like a visual anchor as time speeds by. The caption to these images has a quote from the poet Wendell Berry, “A tree forms itself in answer/ to its place and to the light.” Fitting, for what Berry wrote of and Mishra invoked in his photography, as words grasping at the image of a tree, can also be said of Mishra’s films — formed in answer to the place, and to the light.