Director: Bipin Nadkarni
Producer: Bipin Nadkarni, Opticus Picture Company, Yogesh Beldar
Cast: Sharib Hashmi, Rasika Dugal, Sharad Kelkar, Flora Saini
Streaming Platform: Zee5
Darbaan (gatekeeper), based on a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, begins in 1972 in Dhanbad, then in Bihar. The film pits the benevolent capitalist- a coal mine owner who knows what is best for everyone- against the nationalization of the coal mines that was happening around the time. Much like Lootera used the Zamindari Abolition Act to weave in its story of heartbreak, here too the Nationalization is used to create the first impulse for drama. But unlike Lootera, it’s so wispy and peripheral here- to separate a child, the son of the coal mine owner, from his caretaker – you wonder if there was a better way to frame this separation, especially because the socialist law is not referred to ever again.
This is not to say that the coal mine owner is entirely a stock character of goodness. In anguish, he screams at everyone celebrating Diwali portending the darkness that the coming decades would entail, “Koyla hi likhega iss desh ki kaali qismat.” The servants comply with his anguish, muffling the firecrackers. It’s always interesting to see how filmmakers use the trope of Nationalization to imply a break in tradition, and a breakup of family. (Of course the child would grow up to work for the IFS, buying back the bungalow they had to sell in 1972, so perhaps this is the ideal of Socialist integration?)
The hour and a half film follows the caretaker, Raicharan (Sharib Hashmi), and his relationship with the child he is taking care of- the coal mine owner’s son Anukool, over decades- first when Anukool is a child, and next, when Anukool has a child (Sharad Kelkar, playing the grown up Anukool). Between the two is a vast gulf of time that is filled with Barjatya-levels of pining- but this is all implied. The tension here is that Raicharan is himself childless, married to a wife (Rasika Dugal, in a special appearance) he leaves behind in the village every time Anukool needs him in the city.
Decades move forward with an ease of a frame change, and the characters remain steady in their convictions- as if time has had no effect on them and their relationship to the past. It’s a very easy convenient trope that then leaves the film to dabble in saccharine song picturizations of happy-town. There is a cloyingness to the interactions that perhaps the makers mistook for innocence. A one-dimensional goodness that might seem angelic, just comes across as obsequiousness. It has the kind of over-performed love that is only seen- never felt. Annu Kapoor giving a voiceover, where none was necessary, adds to the over-articulated, under-felt narrative.
The film also swerves geographies from Dhanbad to Gangtok (shot with dewey frames, especially of the latter, by Amalendu Chaudhary) and the storytelling switches from the visceral to the psychological, but the execution is so fraught with simplicity, that moments of Raicharan’s hallucination play out without any palpable sense of disarray- it’s staged with minimal fuss which makes the impact minimal if not nothing. The guilt Raicharan is made to inhabit in the second half is devoid of any complexity- as if merely recreating a Tagore story would be enough. But the times have changed, and the imperatives of storytelling can’t be stuck in the cannon. The last I heard, cloying declarations of love without vigour does not promise feeling, only fatuousness.