Director: Prem Singh
Writer: Prem Singh
Cast: Ahsaas Channa, Mohammad Samad
DOP: Sreechith Vijayan Damodar
Editor: Ashutosh Matela
Streaming on: Amazon miniTV
Barely a word is spoken in a film that features an electronic box of voices. A portable transistor becomes a language in Prem Singh’s disarming 25-minute short. A language of communication: it’s 1975, a nationwide Emergency has been declared, and a transistor is the only source of information for an India on the fringes. A language of fear: the villagers listen to news reports of a mass sterilization drive even as some of their own get forced into a vasectomy. A language of subservience: the rural men of the country are given a transistor in exchange for the vasectomy. And a language of love: a young girl (Ahsaas Channa) and boy (Mohammad Samad) silently connect over the sounds of her transistor every morning. He coyly hides behind a tree, but only just enough for her to feel his gaze. She sits under a tree while her radio serenades him with the latest Hindi film songs. This is their routine. When a meet-cute accident results in a broken transistor, the guilty boy must find a way to win her trust back.
The premise is predictable. But Transistor is thoughtfully filmed. Visuals and little behavioral quirks convey a private story as well as a public narrative. The long shots reveal and conceal at once. For instance, the dual themes of fertility and sterilization run through the poignant film. It opens with a shot of a sickle being sharpened while an announcement is made on the radio. There’s the sperm-egg metaphor: A stream of water separates the boy’s side from the girl’s; he wades to her side everyday on a rickety boat. They ‘meet’ each other in a lush, green field. The transistor’s antenna is responsible for all kinds of signals. An early moment shows the workers in the field running for their life when they see a jeep approaching – a false start, but an indicator of just how ruthless the drive is. This unfurls in the backdrop of the boy-girl frame, as though their story were halted by a brief intermission. The most haunting frame of the film depicts a bare tree next to a lush one – an allegory for the human bodies involved. And then there’s the image of an empty boat leaving the shore and drifting into the middle of the river.
The performances are adequate. It’s not easy to construct something largely out of quiet actions and urgent body language. Ahsaas Channa, a talented young actress usually seen as a student in TVF web shows, is a bit brown-faced – but it’s only apparent if you’ve noticed her before. She does a good job of melting into the warm setting. Mohammad Samad – famous for his roles in Chhichhore, Tumbbad and Selection Day – has an evocative face. He is a master of boyish meekness and uncertainty, two traits that fuel his character arc in Transistor. The cinematography goes a long way in protecting the actors and portraitizing the inherent drama of the story. The lack of close-ups works in context of the mental state of the village.
The film could also have done without an epilogue about the sterilization drive. Not because it’s unimportant, but because it tends to color the perception of the viewer in terms of the storytelling. The socio-historical drama comes in many shapes and forms, but the best of them don’t advertise their intentions. Transistor is almost that film. The writing refuses to rely on verbal pointers and forced exposition throughout the narrative, but then resorts to fact-sharing at the end. In some cases, it can be an effective revelation – where the viewer suddenly realizes what the film is about, and everything makes sense in hindsight. But it’s dry here, reiterating what we already knew, lending numbers to an emotion the film works so hard to establish.
Nevertheless, Transistor is a tender, well-crafted short. It reaches beyond the period tropes, and dares to explain itself through images only. It also joins the ranks of the several Indian stories that have lately been rooted in the authoritarianism of the Indira Gandhi era. Most of them have been curious and clever. But the irony is ripe. The internet is our transistor today.