There is a plethora of films that are entertaining and provide for a good escape from the monotonous grind of existence. But very few films have the power to impact our lives and make us appreciate the little things that truly matter for a fulfilling existence. Achal Mishra's striking debut feature in his mother-tongue of Maithili, Gamak Ghar (2019), is one such rare gem that is bound to evoke longing in the viewer to reconnect with one's roots and the familial bond of yesteryears.
Set in the Bihar village of Madhopur, near Darbhanga, the film chronicles two decades of an ancestral village home as it ages and deteriorates, parallelling the weakening of bond among its three generations of family members. Through festivals and feasts, births and deaths, Mishra creates a palpable sense of nostalgia and loss that can make one ache to relive their carefree vacations spent with relatives.
Gamak Ghar opens with an entire family reuniting at their village home to celebrate the birth of a child. The patriarch of this family is dead, leaving behind a wife, three married sons, a married daughter, and several grandchildren. The men can be seen playing cards in the veranda, their children running around the house playing games, and the women cooking food and snacks in the kitchen. Mishra creates a lovely atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie with the help of his cinematographer Anand Bansal. This segment of the film has been shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, evoking a sense of revisiting old family photographs. There are also some beautiful shots of mango groves and various delicacies being prepared for the feast. The static shots from within the house have been designed such that one feels as if the house is silently keeping a watch on its family members and listening to their discussions in amusement! The segment ends with the entire joint family being photographed together in the frame of a Yashica camera.
Apart from a change in season, the first noticeable change is the expansion in aspect ratio to 16:9. This increase in screen-space mirrors the growth in physical as well as emotional distance among the family members. The eldest son who acted as the glue holding the entire family together has passed away. Both his younger brothers, who are settled in different cities, have hardly been in touch with each other. The conversations between the two are now formal and awkward. Card-playing among the men no longer exists. Even the female bonding seen previously between the matriarch and daughters-in-law is a thing of the past. Joint family photo sessions have been replaced by nuclear family photography. The old Yashica has given way to digital cameras. The eating habits have also transformed. Maggi has replaced potato fritters as the snack for the city-bred grandchildren. Talks around food lack enthusiasm, and nobody seems interested in tasting different delicacies.
One of the highlights of this segment of Gamak Ghar is the attention to detail shown by its production and costume designer Avni Goyal. The decline of the film's central character, the house, has been captured brilliantly. The tulsi plant in its backyard lacks the vitality of the past decade. Roses still exist but in fewer numbers. The external white paint of the house is peeling off, and the walls are developing cracks. There are a few interesting changes shown in this segment that reflect the progression of time. Plastic chairs have come in along with small tables. One can even notice the effect of city lifestyle on the grooming of the two daughters-in-law. They no longer keep their hair tied up, and the youngest one has even added colour streaks.
Shot in CinemaScope, we find the house engulfed in dense fog, giving it a desolated and haunted look. Ever since the death of the matriarch, family members have stopped coming here. Except for the presence of a caretaker, it has fallen to neglect. The house is a shadow of its former self with mouldy walls, unhinged doors and flaked-off coatings. There is not a single trace of a rose flower, and the tulsi plant has dried up. We see labourers breaking the roof of the house. It is being repaired and renovated for an initiation ceremony of the eldest grandson Guddu's (Abhinav Jha) son. But by breaking parts of the house and rebuilding it, will the house remain the same? The film ends with the ship of Theseus paradox!
With Gamak Ghar, Achal Mishra has created a masterpiece that deserves to be cherished as one of the finest Indian films of our times. It excels in every aspect of filmmaking and much credit goes to Mishra who dons various hats including that of director, writer, editor and producer. Special praises need to be heaped on its brilliant melancholic soundtrack by Anshuman Sharma, the colourist Mahak Gupta and the stunning poster designs by Som. The love and passion with which this film has been made shows in each frame and can make the viewer appreciate the beauty of life in a new light.