Director and writer: Sumanth Bhat
Cast: Athish Shetty, Prakash Thuminad, Roopa Varkady
Child actors in Indian mainstream films, largely, follow an ancient repertoire. They emulate the sticky sweetness of store-bought fruit juice, hiding their characters' deeper flavours under their affected cadence and countenance. Rarely assigned with weightier emotions like rage or grief, their ‘cinematic’ is confined to giggles, pouts or pulling long faces. In mainstream imagination, child personas offer little intellectual stimulation to the audience; they come devoid of any deeper meaning to decipher.
In Mithya, filmmaker Sumanth Bhat deviates from this convention to create an unusual child protagonist with an interiority. Mithun (Athish S Shetty) observes, feels and knows. He harbours secrets and grudges; he questions and reacts. The film opens with a shot of him standing at the doorway of a moving train compartment, with his back turned to the viewer. Throughout the film, he keeps turning away from the camera and people, refusing to obey or open up. This rebellion, you learn over the next couple of scenes, stems from shock and grief, among other emotions, that lie entangled in his psyche – his widowed mother killed herself recently, leading to his relocation from Mumbai – where he was born and brought up – to an Udupi village, under the guardianship of his late mother's sister and family. He tiptoes around the new home, eavesdropping on the elders’ conversations and watching them closely, trying to sniff out the truth about his losses. Bhat shadows him, the shallow-focused lensing underscoring the loneliness accumulated on the boy like mould.
A stunning debut, Mithya does a delicate documentation of a child learning to overcome an emotional catastrophe. The narrative has a bildungsroman touch, driven by the boy’s subdued and pressing quest for catharsis in the new environment, into which he must settle regardless of his liking. In fact, it is in the denial of choices he spots the first signs of his orphanhood. His uncle enrols him in a local government school where the medium of instruction is Kannada, a language foreign to him. This move, propelled by the family’s poor financial status, aggravates the pain of his displacement. Already uprooted from his city, he now feels severed from his mother tongue, Marathi – a crisis that the adults treat lightly. Later, he warms up to the new language in an unexpected yet endearing way – through a cheeky verse that his new friend teaches him.
The triumph of Mithya lies in its production of a child’s private world, nestled very much within the larger domain controlled by adults yet starkly cut off from it. It is through the boy’s confusion, pain, and muted anger that we see the adults and their capacity for casual violence. In an early scene, Mithun's new class teacher discusses his personal tragedy well within his earshot, finishing with a callous remark veiled as a sympathetic sigh. You see him in the foreground, quietly and uncomfortably absorbing her words. Don’t adults habitually render children invisible, just as the young learn to exist on the margins of the adult world?
Even as it becomes clear that a more saleable story is unfurling in the background – a strange case of child adoption, a broken marriage, a death that might have been a murder and a suicide that has led to all the tongues wagging – the film firmly focuses on Mithun’s arcane private realm. It empathetically maps the physical geography of this world, marking its contours and defining landmarks – a lake hidden in the wilderness where he learns to be a fish, a dilapidated structure where he hangs out with his only friend in the village, and the playground where he makes feeble attempts at socialising with boys of his age. A brief sequence inside a juvenile home does not milk the pop-cultural cliches around the institution. The debilitating sense of alienation a child encounters in such spaces comes through in the images of sparsely-furnished dorm rooms that resemble a soulless monastery and the unsettling screams that emanate from solitary cells, piercing into the silence of the rest of the house.
Mithya unfolds during the brief period after an episode of violence, and there is a pervasive suggestion in the narrative that it is slowly building towards another. Bhat circumscribes the depiction of violence, inscribing it within the reticent imagery and observational narrative. He lets the viewer read it from Mithun’s silence. Eventually, in the final scene, the boy’s sense of justice undergoes a trial, like a rite of passage – a gruelling catharsis that would, hopefully, liberate him. He must decide what kind of person he wants to be, a challenge most people do not encounter at his age. This finale, brilliantly performed by the child actors, does have a public-facing quality, gratifying for the viewer. But the staging of the scene is superb – Mithun draws nearer yet insists on privacy, withholding a part of his inner world from the viewer. What emerges is the film’s ability to present a child without patronising him, allowing empathetic observation as he gleans delicate experiences and ambivalent emotions from the landscape of a life run over by tragedies.