Director: Rima Das
Writer: Rima Das
Cast: Abhijit Das, Tarali Kalita Das, Bhuman Bhargav Das, Purbanchali Das
Duration: 121 mins
Available in: Theatres
With Tora’s Husband, Rima Das takes her fragile, interiorized cinema to the city. Her rapturously applauded previous two films — Village Rockstars (2017) and Bulbul Can Sing (2018) — shot in Das’s home village of Kalardiya in Lower Assam, had the texture and time-stewing of rural life. Characters did not stride, but sauntered. Days had a soft, cyclical pull, where the duration between scenes was not clear — it could be hours, days, weeks. There was no need for a background score because nature was ambient enough, flushing the soundscape with crickets, lapping waters, rustling paddy, bleating goats, grunting pigs.
With Village Rockstars she wove a world around her child protagonist Dhunu. When you see the first image of her band mime-playing the guitar and drums and the octapads cut out of thermocol, there is something discordant in the image itself, and a question emerges — where did these children, living in this suspended world, see the image of the “band” that they’re emulating? With Bulbul Can Sing, she complicates the coming of age of her teenage protagonist Bulbul, by injecting into her arc the poison of the world, of structures and strictures, of mobs parading as moral police.
Tora’s Husband, as it opens, challenges what you would have assumed of a Rima Das film. It is not just the visual of urban spaces. But there is a poignant background score, too, something that was conspicuously missing from her previous films. What is it about the adult world, the city life, that now needs more cinematic coaxing?
The World of Tora’s Husband
Dedicated to her father, who passed away during the pandemic, Tora’s Husband drops us in the middle of small-town Assam, to shadow Abhay Das (Abhijit Das) as he navigates the little turbulences of his daily life. Known to everyone as Jaan, Abhay lives up to his nickname: He’s the beating heart of his community, comforting everyone from the madman at the traffic signal to his son Bhargav (Bhuman Bhargav Das) when the stress of giving online examinations breaks the little boy down. Set in that fractured, barely-healed moment when the pandemic seemed to be easing, Das follows Jaan as he tries to revive his bakery and restaurant in Chhaygaon, be the man of his fragile household, and ultimately retreats into a drunken stupor at the end of each day.
We see him driving to Guwahati to get supplies for the bakery, post flyers for the family’s missing pet dog. He kicks the winning goal in a football match and matches potbellies with his middle-aged fellow players. He meets his mother who refuses to stay with him; gives loans, takes loans, asks for money, is asked for money. There is so much shuffling in this film.
Jaan only seems to be able to breathe in the company of nature. Or alcohol. His regular drinking concerns his wife Tora (Tarali Kalita Das) — whose name, as far as I noticed, is never uttered — and this friction builds through the film. Although her name is in the title, there’s little of her in Tora’s Husband. We see her in fragments, much like Jaan does, tending to her beloved plants and managing the domestic details. Das never allows you to stick judgments on her slippery characters. When Tora tells her friend, “He is a good man, but he is not a good husband”, it is followed by a scene where he is buying shoes for her, aware of her needs, no hint of frustration in his gait, his face. In another scene, when they’re alone at home, Jaan breaks a flower pot by mistake. Tora berates him for being careless. “You’ve filled the house with flowers,” he says irritatedly to her. “There’s no space to even move.”
You see Tora’s anxiety — not being able to reach her husband at night, dropping her kids at a friend’s place and taking a bike to scour the city for Jaan — while Jaan is getting drunk elsewhere. But you also see the kindness in Jaan’s gestures and the toil that he navigates during the day. “My worries start from daybreak,” he sighs. He is a loving father to their children, indulging the young Bhargav when he cries, holding the boy when he feels alone and guilty, watching patiently as the tantrum fades out. He is the friend that others turn to and the boss who defends his employees against abusive customers, but he’s also the patriarch who refuses to let the domestic help return to their house after she’s taken away to a camp — a terrifying idea, particularly in Assam, with its recent history of detention centres — when she tests positive for Covid-19. Even though she’s recovered, Jaan won’t have her come back to work. When Jaan drinks at night, he ends up sleeping in his car, or in another room in the house.
The Elegance of Das’s Storytelling
This is Das coasting the peak she sculpted as writer, director, cinematographer, editor, and producer. Tora’s Husband unfolds like life, with easy lyricism, building up to a quiet heartbreak. The elegance of Das’s storytelling is in the masterful control she has of her narrative. Every scene in the film has a loose realism to it, powered by unaffected performances that make the viewer feel like they’re part of Jaan and Tora’s world. Yet in this looseness is a neatly-structured narrative. Each moment in Das’s film is carefully selected and meticulously plotted. A scene that shows Jaan standing in the rain, overseeing labourers fixing a road is followed by one in which his children delightedly play in a giant puddle, formed by a pothole in Jaan’s driveway; the toil of the first made more pointed by the glee in the second.
Das gives her characters, with their tired, sometimes aimless stares, the space to exert their personhood. There are scenes where you want to reach out and coddle the children, and moments you want to fling them out of the film because of their shrill and persistent demands. Sometimes, their gazes hint at a knowingness that feels uncharacteristic of their age. Like Das’s previous films, Tora’s Husband too is touched by life and its rhythms — unpredictable, relentless — and not the tropes or structures of cinema and storytelling. Conflict is introduced like someone perfumed the air. At first there is only a hint of it, your nose sharpens, and then, the density of scent. She gives her adult protagonist that same dignity of personhood that she gives her child and teenaged characters. They are never realised as characters crowding a story, but as people peopling a life.
It is true that there is more yearning as an adult — not just for a future, but a past, too. Jaan keeps flipping through photos of his childhood football championships. His son even asks, “Why do you keep repeating about the championship?” What can Jaan possibly say? That he cannot stop looking back, and looking at who he is now from the eyes of that boy in the photograph? Will Bhargav understand this? Perhaps. But Das is not one to waste time with pert profundities. She has an unfolding life left to capture.