Samskara Short Film Review: A Split-Screen Masterpiece On Domestic Violence

Sankalp Rawal’s Samskara is a stunning 11-minute drama in which the past and the future occur simultaneously
Samskara Short Film Review: A Split-Screen Masterpiece On Domestic Violence

Director: Sankalp Rawal
Cast: Namit Das, Naman Jain, Padma Damodaran, Priya Tandon
DOP: Akshay Singh
Editor: Vaishak Ravi
Streaming: Youtube | Six Sigma Films

We inherit a lot from our parents. Most traits – both physical and psychological – are visible in our adolescent years. He's got his father's nose. She's got her mother's eyes. He's got his father's sense of humour. She's got her mother's kindness. The "genes" are what the outside world comments on when they see a child for the first time. But some traits only emerge in adulthood. Like dormant viruses, they feed on the growth and development of other senses. They rely on time, experience and the circularity of life. Most notably, they count on a mind cultivating a future deep enough to have a history – and thrive on the mental impressions ("samskara") of a past. He drinks like his father. He lies like his mother. These genes are what the inside world denies when they see the child become an adult for the first time. 

Feature-length narratives possess the bandwidth to explore the horrors of heritage. In Big Little Lies, the definitive series on the "legacy" of domestic violence, a running theme features the hidden identity of a schoolboy who has bullied a girl into silence. When his name is revealed, it dawns upon the viewer – as well as the boy's mother – that he has simply taken after his father, a sexually abusive wife-beater. Ditto in Asim Abbasi's Pakistani series Churails, where a child playfully pinches a woman's bottom in a supermarket, only for it to be later revealed that his father is a serial predator and sex trafficker. (There's also Heritage Lite in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na: A widow worries about when her gentle son, the film's hero, might start showing signs of his "voilent" Rajput blood.).

But it's different with short films. The medium doesn't allow a flashback to be earned or an experience to be lived. Which is why Sankalp Rawal's Samskara – a stunning 11-minute drama in which the past and the future occur simultaneously – has the most evocative use of the 'split screen' in recent memory. On one side, we see a shaken teenager (Naman Jain) comfort his battered mother moments after shooting his abusive father dead. On the other, we see his haunted grown-up version (Namit Das) waving that gun moments after he beats up his young wife.

Yet, it's not as simple as two timelines unfurling at once. The composition of both sequences is designed with impeccable thought and timing. Every beat, every gesture, is spiritually synchronized with its counterpart. A gun is hidden, a gun is retrieved. A chair falls, a chair waits. A woman lashes out at a lifeless body, a man lashes out at his dead soul. A mother and child embrace, a husband and wife collapse. A character sings a song, the other hums the chorus; together they form a whole. As a viewer, it's surreal to see memories and life in palindromic harmony; the camera shoots but the eyes edit. We choose how to digest the visuals – the left side about the boy's courage mirrors the "logical" left side of the human brain, the right side about the man's shame reflects the "artistic" right side of the brain. On a broader level, it's like watching the conflict and resolution co-exist, the origin story and the climax exist side by side.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the design is how the film refuses to distinguish between timelines. The colour tones are more or less identical – which is to say that any of them could be the primary narrative. One would think Samskara is about a man haunted by memories of his past, but it's also about a child haunted by memories of a future. When the boy looks upward in one frame, his line of vision is directed towards the man holding a gun. The split screen is an illusion here. In a way, the kid can't believe that this is what he is destined to become. Seconds later, it's revealed that the kneeling boy was looking at his mother, who enters his frame to embrace him. Similarly, it appears as if the wife on the right softens when she notices the boy and his mother embracing on the left. She is actually looking at her husband, but who's to tell she isn't looking at the frightened little boy within him? There's magic when the two sides meet, but there's poetry when they try to.

That's what Samskara so elegantly does. One thinks, the other acts. One is moving, the other moves forward. The careful craft suggests that, while heritage is a consequence of history repeating itself, the future is a consequence of history redeeming itself. He's got his father's temper. But he's also got the heart of the boy that saves his mother from that temper. 

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