Director: Jahnu Barua
Cast: Seema Biswas, Arun Nath, Kopil Bora, Urmila Mahanta
More than a decade ago, Anupam Kher delivered one of his finest performances in a Hindi film. As a retired professor struggling with the onset of dementia, he begins to believe that he killed Mahatma Gandhi. Perhaps the most affecting part of Maine Gandhi Ko Nahi Mara, though, was the way his family and well-wishers closed ranks to protect the man’s fragile mind. Led by Urmila Matondkar, who played his daughter, the final act involved an emotionally charged ‘fake’ courtroom sequence, where everyone played a character to indulge the old man’s delusion and put him on trial.
While the concept of artificial closure is a little far-fetched, the desperate idealism of the decision isn’t. Only a loved one can be anguished enough to create a scenario like this – let alone turning its improbability into a heartbreaking inevitability.
The director of that film, veteran Assamese filmmaker Jahnu Barua, begins his short, That Gusty Morning, with a similarly painstaking act of clemency. It opens with images of a man up at the crack of dawn, meticulously ‘unmarking’ college answer sheets with an eraser. This seems like a routine. A young lady, his daughter, is soon up too; both of them communicate in a conspiratory tone, as if “setting” up the day for someone rather special.
The woman they’re conjuring up a universe on rewind for, in a manner reminiscent of Drew Barrymore’s family in 50 First Dates, is his wife and her mother. The frighteningly talented Seema Biswas plays the retired teacher here, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s – a disease that has clearly altered her family’s life. Every morning, she is given the same answer sheets to mark, lest she suspects something were amiss. Her fractured consciousness occasionally allows her to recognize these faces. She is adequately dramatic, her eyes wide open, unable to fathom the extent of care she’s getting.
Seema Biswas is adequately dramatic, her eyes wide open, unable to fathom the extent of care she’s getting.
As with most households enveloping an ailment, their concern has begun to assume a patronizing territoriality. It hasn’t been long enough for them to start resenting her condition, but it has been just long enough for them to continue over-parenting her – as if she were an erratic puppy, not a dysfunctional adult. They acknowledge her by hiding her state, and hide her by acknowledging her state.
The girl is jittery, because her boyfriend will be dropping in to meet her parents for the first time, and she hasn’t told him about her mother’s illness. It has already ‘cost’ her once, and she is paranoid. She feels guilty for tiptoeing around her own life, and worse for even thinking of the terms ‘burden’ and ‘liability’. The film pivots around the boy’s visit – handled unobtrusively by Mr. Barua, who somehow manages to capture, or suggest, the many emotions swaying about in these sensitive minutes.
Several things seem to be happening in the loaded dying seconds – a girl enslaved by her own past, a daughter ashamed of her own actions, a man accepting his wife’s condition, a woman jolted by a surge of motherhood, a boy startled by the lack of trust placed in him, a fiancé embodying the frills of love.
In most cultures, there’s more to these traditional meetings than simply the ‘formality’ of asking for her hand. More than a transfer of power, a change of guard or passing of the baton, it’s a moment symbolizing the twilight of active parenthood – a willful surrendering of status and loyalty to the next generation. However, in a poignant revaluation of its significance, a girl resigned to the fate of parenting her old lady is momentarily reminded of who her mother was, and is. She revels in this fleeting feeling of normalcy, of not being in control, and being humbled, and finally being the trembling, nervous daughter again.
This is a lovely moment, magnified by the simplicity of the film that precedes it. The tragedy of this situation is amplified by this brief spurt of happiness. Nothing is salvaged, yet the way forward feels a little less heavy.
Sometimes, there’s nothing like good, old-fashioned storytelling – jarring sound design, student-film title et al – to communicate the wistfulness of life. Perhaps it’s this imperfection of old-school craft that reflects the flawed workings of contemporary conscience. For now, That Gusty Morning is a timely reminder of Jahnu Barua’s legacy. Excuse me while I dive face-first into the rest of his Assamese filmography.
Watch That Gusty Morning here: