Director: Prabhakar Pant
Cast: Suruchi Aulakh, Pushkar Shrotri, Deepanshu Dhyani
For its first five minutes, Chumbak is a film. It looks like one, feels like one, sounds like one, and conditions our mind to its cinematic intrigue. Words and visuals play off one another. It promises sub-textual relevance. You sense you’re maybe watching one by design: a dysfunctional Indian family drama at the end of its dark tether. A volatile behind-closed-doors tale – one of millions hidden across the country – that is too often reduced to a judgmental newspaper headline or botched police investigation.
A raging wife stabs her middle-aged husband to death in bed, dramatically, agonizingly, while their boy watches on in horror. The possibilities, at this point, as she walks out like a ghost and rinses off the blood in a shower, are endless. She then mournfully dances to their favourite anniversary music, reminiscing about a time that was once theirs, before their love went sour. The elements of storytelling are all there: a dead-of-night incident, deafening silence, an antique gramophone producing a beautiful ghazal, a character-staging backstory, a sullen voiceover and lyrical longing (“we never felt the need to undress, to make love”).
The title (meaning “magnet”) compliments the disillusionment in her voice. She tells us their story, and there is much about her submissive personality – gratitude, modesty and, eventually, dire shock – that is revealed from the way she reacts. Her world came crashing down, and we want to know why. She has obviously killed him for a reason – one that is revealed fleetingly in the montage, and one that is disturbing enough to question the “mood” of the next five minutes.
Now this is the strange, strange portion. I wouldn’t know what to make of it, given that the twist is not narratively inclined but an odd psychological device within the realms of their disturbing situation. I don’t really mind the thinking or validity of these last few minutes, but the way it’s executed leaves a lot to be desired – artistically, more than anything. It goes where logic rarely dares to. And unchartered waters are always tricky, because there’s never a point of reference. Not even in real life, as could be the case here. As a result, the lines sound like the faces are addressing us instead of themselves.
The subversion of themes is effective only if the mandatory exposition of the final revelation isn’t designed to spoon-feed viewers. It has to remain natural, stilted and shaky perhaps, and in sync with the sheer trauma of its environment. Verbal exchanges must occur in context of where the characters stand; they shouldn’t speak broadly, as if they’re trying to keep us up to speed with their bizarre decisions. They should speak like flawed people at a point on their journey, and not as puppets trying to send us a coherent message. So much of it is explained that they reduce themselves to props at the mercy of our judgment.
Suddenly, Chumbak stops being a film unfurling in a house and acquires the righteous tone of a case study occurring at a psychiatrist’s clinic. This is a pity. Because the last shot of the film, an ambiguous glance shared between two of the main characters, is a memorable one. It almost does the impossible; it almost, almost creates a miraculous sense of empathy for the “villain”. And it’s not everyday that we find ourselves wanting to understand – or rethink – the established morality of a chilling crime.
Watch Chumbak here: