Director: Jagdish Mishra
Cast: Shubhangi Latkar, Om Bhutkar, Archana Iyer
I remember being critical of Umesh Shukla’s social comedy 102 Not Out – starring Rishi Kapoor, and Amitabh Bachchan as his father – because of how it perpetuated the age-old Indian shortcoming of parents burdening their adult children with the “duty” of caretaking. A son was made to look like an ungrateful villain because he dared to leave home and make his own life abroad. Jagdish Mishra’s 24-minute short, Lost and Hound, turns this glaring cultural flaw into a morbid genre movie. The title is a little silly, and the actors a little obvious, but the inbuilt ‘message’ is wicked, and does far more to reflect a national epidemic than a feature-length comedy.
A 60-year-old lady named Sunanda lives alone in a bungalow five hours from Mumbai. She has a routine – gardening, cooking, walking her dog. Only a friendly grocery boy visits her every week. Today, she has baked a cake. When a police inspector visits the property, we learn that Sunanda is quietly celebrating the birthday of her younger son Manan. Manan disappeared into thin air some years ago and has been missing ever since. Her older son lives in America. Much of this is information supplied through the chat that results from the cop’s unscheduled visit.
The narrative plays out like one of those bizarre newspaper articles (“mother arrested for preserving son’s severed head in freezer”) we merely gasp at before moving on to the next page
If you concentrate hard enough, it’s not difficult to predict the ‘twist’ at the end. We’ve seen enough gentle-looking actresses cast in a role specifically meant to colour the viewer’s perception of her character. Shubhangi Latkar has a hostile-yet-maternal manner. She is essentially acting as a lady who is used to acting – it’s a tricky part, but Sunanda does come across as a person who is maybe a bit dramatic with her dialogue because that’s the only kind of ‘performance’ she knows. Maybe she is borrowing from Hindi films. It’s a fine balance, and Latkar just about pulls it off with her facial theatricality.
I also like the way this film is designed. The world-building is elaborate, adding to the unsettling suspense of the house. There are clues to the situation everywhere. The dog is called Mahesh, a human name, and is always chained to a pole. The grocery boy mentions that he is on his way to watch Sairat – a Marathi blockbuster in which parents are the real tormentors. He is also roughly the son’s age. The bungalow is situated in ‘Badlapur’ – perhaps a nod to the Sriram Raghavan movie in which Varun Dhawan’s character is a grieving parent avenging the loss of his child. Sunanda mentions that Manan loved traveling and planned to visit several countries – a trait that paints him as a nomad who hates being tied down to a single place. A prime candidate for the son who never returns. Her mental state becomes apparent when she talks about her older son bitterly, and how he should be the one taking the initiative to meet her instead of her reaching out to him.
Most of all, Sunanda is shown tending to her favourite Bonsai plant – she uses wires to “control its growth”. (The cop pointedly asking her about the plant is too much exposition; just a shot of her arranging the wires might have better informed the scary metaphor). Put together, all of these little details hint at there being more to this woman – and her house – than is apparent.
The film takes its time, letting us take in her surroundings so that we can replay it in our heads after the ending. The location is a character, as is a painting on the wall and a special plate of food. The narrative plays out like one of those bizarre newspaper articles (“mother arrested for preserving son’s severed head in freezer”) we merely gasp at before moving on to the next page. But you know a movie is truly effective when an ordinary shot of a dog barking is perhaps the eeriest – and most symbolic – moment of the story.