Director: Abhiroop Basu
Cast: Adil Hussain, Ratnabali Bhattacharjee
Streaming on: Mubi
It was only a matter of time. Art is an aesthetic consequence of life; politics is the intellectual consequence of living. One cannot exist without the other. In an era where writers are being dissuaded from letting their “personal politics” affect their opinions, it is essential for movies like Meal to exist as a counter-argument to this banally binary thought process. Meal, a powerful 10-minute short directed by Abhiroop Basu, is the first film to directly address the currentness of a nation divided by its government. A wordless chamber drama about a family preparing to eat lunch while their city burns with communal riots, the CAA-NRC conflict underpins its atmosphere like an inaudible background score.
The setting simmers with an apocalyptic mood: The silence, a metaphor for the suppressed, is punctuated by urgent news bulletins in the living room and aggressive chants of “Narendra Modi Zindabad!” in broken bylanes. The family members are unnamed, for they have lost a sense of identity. Even the objects in the house seem to have a louder voice than theirs. The frightening part is that it’s hard to tell if Meal exposes the travails of present-day India or foretells its future. At this point, history is the decrepit bridge that connects the two.
Meal opens with a pregnant lady (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee) cooking lunch in a ramshackled kitchen. The shot lingers on for a while, allowing us to imagine the circumstances leading to her bruised face. She looks hurt, angry, hopeless and traumatized all at once; the pressure cooker adds to the tension. As this film goes on, our reading of its unsaid events reveals more about us than the stricken characters. For instance, the opening shot is followed by the visual introduction of her husband (Adil Hussain). He has a bandaged hand. Hardened right-wingers might immediately add two and two to conclude that the man is a wife-beater and theirs is a dysfunctional family plagued with domestic violence. But the logical Indian will look past the smokescreen. The nature of the injuries offer a clue: the hand is bloody and the face is scarred. The scuffle looks anything but interpersonal.
The husband is frustratedly trying to pack a suitcase while his paralyzed old father passes urine in lieu of words. Both the men look devastated. A broken mirror and shattered clock double up as muted dialogue. You sense that the real movie is already over and done with – this family is simply quaking in the turbulence of its aftermath. The son is in a school uniform. While packing his bag, he listens to Assamese news anchors interview injured protestors in the area. In a fleetingly revelatory moment, the boy hurriedly peels off a tiny religious sticker from his exam pad. Better sorry than dead. The family is on the brink; your mind starts developing monochromatic images of the experiences that pushed them to this point. Your mind refuses to develop colourful images of the functional people – journalists, housewives, professors, students – they once were. The three then sit down for lunch. Intense, fearful expressions are exchanged for reasons that require the discerning viewer to wait for a dramatic outburst. Their reaction, again, uncovers an India in which immigrants are now forced to make a choice between swallowing their pride and consuming themselves.
Meal is photographed, designed and written with an intent that reflects the hollowness of tomorrow once our today ceases to exist. Most notably, the spatial literature of the film is equally evocative. Cameos by the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom reveal a place of spiritual demise – and a house in which the term “living room” becomes the most tragic oxymoron since “concentration camp”.