There is a breed of novelists who were poets first – Ocean Vuong, Jeet Thayil, etc. When you read their novels, you understand how their prose is inextricably linked to their verse, how they think in verse and write in sentences for a story that is better suited to the form of a novel. Often, you read a novel of theirs and wonder if a film could ever do justice to a story written in that syntax of poetry.
Rarely, however, do you find a film that looks as if it was lifted from such a novel, a film that came not from a prose script but from stanzas of images. Then you ask yourself if linear sentences could ever do justice to the film. These films escape the written language and are impossibly difficult to review. To quote Christian Metz, these films are “difficult to explain because they are easy to understand”. This, exactly, is Tathagata Ghosh’s film Miss Man.
The first thirty seconds alone contain the major ideas behind the film. However, we rarely go into a film with the battle-preparedness to look and analyse from the first frame onwards. So, for the first few moments of the film, we are lost. But the sense of being lost is not one that is disillusioning. We are not lost because the scenes move too fast. We are lost because we haven’t been looking. Most filmmakers would warn against such a beginning, insisting instead to ease the audience into the film, create hooks for characters, get the audience invested and then increase the pace. But here, because of the content of each scene that flashes past us in thirty seconds, we understand that we better keep looking, lest something escape us because the last thing we want is to be fooled. There is reason to spend a paragraph on the first thirty seconds, the most important one being this – this montage of images, apart from being brilliantly composed and seamlessly joined together through the sound design, is so captivating that one wants to keep looking. As the shots fly by us, we do not want to pause these moments but rather wish to live them more, let them extend.
By denying the audience of the opportunity to linger on what looks and sounds so beautiful, the filmmaker creates in us a sensation of hunger, of wanting more than what is given, of control from his end and of partial surrender from ours. A gradual realisation dawns that this is not a film, it is a current – of a stream, a fast-flowing river; we can desperately hope to understand every moment in the first watch but we must accept that we cannot; we must allow the current to take us where it will and if the first thirty seconds is any indication of the rest of the film, we can trust the journey will be as worthwhile as the destination.
To avoid giving spoilers, I will not talk about specific scenes or moments that captivated me. However, there is something that the director and writer does with the skill of a veteran that deserves careful study, scrutiny and acknowledgement. If you have seen this already, you will better understand me when I say that this film could very easily have been a 90-minute feature film. Bringing it down to twenty-five minutes without losing any plot points and adding more nuances by adopting brevity requires the use of a great deal of symbolism and Miss Man stands out in the completely lucid way in which these symbols are used. There is never any ambiguity about these inserts. We know exactly what they mean every time. When the protagonist, Manob, played by Arghya Adhikary, falls out with an ally, Ghosh, the director, inserts a scene of the said ally leaving Manob standing alone in an alley. When Manob gains an ally, similarly, there is an insert of someone joining him on a boat or standing next to him in a room where he has so far been seen alone. The director never abandons us to figure things out for ourselves, which might sound like a really pathetic request, but imagine watching a film alone in a darkened hall, entering into a story you do not know but wish to understand – often, we seek the comfort of someone to guide us through. Often when directors fail to do that, we resort to the friend who has fallen asleep beside us, nudge them awake and ask, “What did that dialogue mean?”
In Miss Man, we are never left alone. The cinematographer never fails to direct our attention exactly to what he wants us to be looking at, changing lights and lenses from scene to scene to mark a shift and alert us to look closer; the costume designer updating the colours of the clothes according to shifts in the mood of the story begs us to ask why suddenly someone who likes to wear sarees is wearing dull colours; the sound designer takes us from the familiar ambience of realistic places to that of a surreal dream-space that seems all the more real because of a birdcall or a door creak that we cannot even identify but trust completely as belonging to the scene; the editor takes us across timelines to connect the dots and helps us see what memories of the past motivate a character to take an action in the present; the music composer reinforces the tone of a scene where nobody speaks with the rhythmic stirring of an instrument, which conveys more multitudes than dialogues ever could.
This is a film that happens to you.
I would only suggest before you begin watching to let yourself go, to come to it not with the motivation to understand everything but with the excitement to encounter something new. Rest easy. However, if you, inevitably, find yourself sitting up straight after the first thirty seconds, do not be alarmed. Go with the current. You are in good hands.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.