Tathagat, Manav Kaul's second directorial venture after 2012's Hansa, is anchored to guilt and redemption. Mistakes have been made, and the wrongdoer wants forgiveness, for which he travels to the top of the Himalayas. The apology is scribbled on a paper and held high in the east, to elevate it further into the sky using strong winds. If this paper keeps going upwards, your crime is pardoned. This is what a father tells his young son. And that son is the wrongdoer seeking forgiveness in the Himalayas.
First, a bit about the boy and his family. His name is Suraj. Like most kids his age, he hates going to school. His father is a clown, though no one laughs at his antics. The man himself rarely smiles, as he is primarily drunk and desperate for food. His wife (Sayani Gupta) doesn't allow him to step into their house. It's a rough marriage. The boy offers his lunch box to his father, but it registers as an act of pity and kindness. Love is an element you won't find in this family. The father, mother, and son seem to just be living their life, performing their duties without stopping to share even a tiny affectionate moment with each other.
In Tathagat, endearment is found outside one's own household. Suraj grows fond of his aunt (Savita Rani), so much so that he only allows her to shower him. When he enters old age and turns into a Baba (Harish Khanna), we meet his disciple, Amar (Ghanshyam Lalsa), who has left his home to find serenity by becoming an ascetic. Amar pledges to dedicate himself to Baba. The two holy men have run away from their families and settled atop a hill. But their home has been calling them, waiting for them. Amar's grandfather often shows up to convince him to come back home. Once Baba is informed about the demise of his aunt, he longs to go back to his house. The return trip is not as easy as hopping on a bus. The two men have neglected their calling for too long. Soon, we realise that they have irreparably broken the bridge to their humble abode.
Kaul presents his story without underlining the drama. The characters live their lives and do their chores without forcing us to invest in them. The opening conversation between a young and an old man informs us that Tathagat would navigate spiritual talks and territories. Once you accept its style, you won't wince at scenes like the one where a man asks, "Kaun hoon main?" while looking at his reflection in a mirror. The entire narrative oscillates between the past and the present. The news regarding the aunt's death triggers Baba's childhood memories. After a while, you don't see the two parts as merely a time jump. They become an introspective tool as Baba tries to make sense of his immature mistake. The film doesn't ask for your judgment, and you never put Baba under a moral microscope. The intention here is to show a man grieving, repenting, and how he slowly gets eaten from the inside by his sin. That does not mean he cannot be forgiven. It's just that attaining absolution is not easy. It requires some sacrifice.
What's more? Not every ascetic rests on a peak in isolation to gain wisdom. Some of them are simply trying to escape from or accept their own wrongs.