Barah by Barah Review: Life, Death and Change in Varanasi

This debut film, centred on a man who photographs dead bodies, offers a poignant portrait of a city at crossroads.
Barah by Barah Review: Life, Death and Change in Varanasi
Barah by Barah Review: Life, Death and Change in Varanasi

Director: Gaurav Madan
Writers: Gaurav Madan, Sunny Lahiri
Cast: Gyanendra Tripathi, Bhumika Dube, Harish Khanna, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Akash Sinha

Duration: 118 minutes

Available in: Theatres

In Gaurav Madan’s Barah by Barah (“12x12”), the celluloid permanence of death grapples with the digital progression of life. Shot on 16mm film, the story lingers on Sooraj (Gyanendra Tripathi), a man mourning the slow demise of his profession. He is a death photographer in the holy city of Varanasi; his camera captures the final still of bodies before they’re cremated on the sacred Manikarnika Ghat. But the use of mobile phones – and the awkward marriage of technology and tradition – means that Sooraj’s services are no longer an indispensable part of the mortality business. It is after all the only custom that’s rooted in documentation, not deliverance. Unlike upper-caste priests and lower-caste cremation workers, photographers are restricted by the agnosticism of their role. Spiritually at least, anyone is ‘qualified’ to click a button. His portraiture itself is in danger of becoming a garlanded 12x12 inch picture. 

As a result, Sooraj is stranded at the crossroads of not only tradition and modernity, but also social change and cultural continuity. The film does a fine job of quietly shaping this conflict. Almost every character is hanging onto a past that’s running out of currency. 

Sooraj’s friend, Dubey (Akash Sinha), is a pyre wood supplier who has taken to sloganeering (“stop the wrecking!”) to preserve the heritage of Kashi (the locals’ name for Varanasi). But you can tell that his dissent stems from time, not faith. He is the only brother in his family refusing to sell his share of property to the government. He resists gentrification because it gives him a sense of purpose; the irony of being a cog in the wheel of religious tourism is lost on him. Sooraj’s father (Harish Khanna) is an old-school believer whose fading health begins to soften his ideals. He refuses treatment elsewhere (“People from all over come to Kashi to die and I go to some drab city hospital?”), but pursues a festival reunion with his estranged daughter. The sounds of demolition and drilling fill the city, but they’re also used to convey the breaking of these characters’ egos. Sooraj himself comes in contact with a visiting urban photographer; he starts to notice his own desensitization to death as well as the visual formality of salvation. He also starts to realize that his job has suppressed the artist in him. Bodies are burnt every minute, yet it’s the spirit of the living that invites decay. 

Barah by Barah in theatres
Barah by Barah in theatres

Choosing Elegance Over the Exotic

The film-making in Barah by Barah is muted and effective. Most of it highlights the body language of people in a setting that pits ritual against routine. For instance, the vices of Sooraj and his father – the paan-chewing, tobacco, gutkha and alcohol – feel like habits cultivated in response to the ceremonial nature of their work. Ditto for Dubey, who frequents a local brothel – a space for the world’s oldest profession – almost in defiance of the development around them. Even Sooraj’s wife, Meena (a terrific Bhumika Dube), goes about chores in the house with such practiced pragmatism that it looks like an antidote to the town’s crumbling nostalgia. Her muscle memory is a thing of wonder in a narrative that questions the meaning of memory. 

The performances melt into the surroundings. Gyanendra Tripathi, in particular, navigates that complicated terrain between belonging and being. Sooraj’s relationship with his father is a grounded companion piece to Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan (2016) and Kanu Behl’s Titli (2014). The weaker the old man gets, the more autonomous Sooraj becomes; he even forbids him from influencing his child with mythological tales. The cinematography seems to grasp how the alleyways in Varanasi seem to expand in tandem with the size of the bodies that are carried through them. It also doesn’t oversell the normalization of death. A wedding procession is quickly followed by a top-angle shot of a dead body inching towards the Ganges on Holi; the funeral – with colours bursting through the corners of the frame – looks like a bigger celebration than the wedding. The liberation is validated by what follows: Sibling bonding, sex as an act of release, and the courage to move forward under the guise of moving on. 

Barah by Barah in theatres
Barah by Barah in theatres

A World Changed by Women

Despite the staging, it refrains from overly symbolic or exotic visuals. Instead, the film trusts the viewer to notice the background details – for example, radio snippets of the 2019 election campaign and Varanasi being the Prime Minister’s home turf. What this does, at some level, is conflate the past with the future: One is almost led to imagine Sooraj’s photography of mass cremations during the Covid-19 pandemic. The subtext is both political and personal. At another point, Sooraj’s son uses his camera to sneakily photograph him while he’s asleep. Sooraj wakes up in a huff, but pauses when he realizes that the boy simply envisioned his nap – eyes closed, limp body – as a serene reflection of death; he is seeing what he is conditioned to see. It’s a fleeting moment, but an important one in context of the family’s coming-of-age journey. 

Which brings us to the film’s most striking duality. The men in the story are torn between legacy and survival. They’re enslaved by an idea of antiquity that equates succession with success; they look clumsy even while withdrawing money from an ATM machine. But it’s the women who eventually hold the batons of change. 

Meena doesn’t think twice before clicking a selfie with her family. She constantly encourages Sooraj to look beyond death – and find life – in his viewfinder; his best photographs are candids of her on their terrace. The one time we see Sooraj at ease in a ‘modern’ environment is when he’s with Meena at a mall. The arrival of Sooraj’s sister Mansi (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) from Delhi furthers this motif. Mansi’s rift with her father is never revealed, but you can tell that it’s because she chose to leave Varanasi, pursue an engineering career and live on her own terms. Her agency inspires Meena to plant the seed of migration in Sooraj’s mind. The connection between the two women brings to mind the self-contained feminism in Kiran Rao’s Laapata Ladies (2024) – where it’s not about making a statement so much as evolving into a sentence. Barah by Barah is gently guided by their depth of field. It might be Sooraj’s eye, but it’s Meena and Mansi’s gaze. Varanasi might be the story being written, but the women are the editors. They reframe stillness as a portrait of motion. And most of all, they turn the digital progression of death into the celluloid permanence of life. 

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