Director: Achal Mishra
Cast: Abhinav Jha, Mira Jha, Satyendra Jha, Soniya Jha
Streaming on: MUBI
It's easier to turn life into a film than making a film that looks like life. With the Maithili-language Ghamak Ghar, 23-year-old director Achal Mishra uses the former as a ruse to accomplish the latter. Ghamak Ghar is set in Mishra's ancestral village in Bihar. The members of the clan, otherwise spread out in faraway corners of the country, reunite at the family home for a few days every year to celebrate festivals and births and languid summer feasts. The women cook and gossip, the men play cards and eat, the children watch late-night movies and wander in mango orchards. But this is 1998. The film is essentially a collage of sights and sounds of this house over three separate periods (1998, 2010, 2019). Things change. Roots dissolve. The personality of the walls becomes thinner with each passing decade.
There's a distinct charm about creating realism as opposed to capturing it. A lifelike painting is often more eye-catching than a well-shot portrait. Ghamak Ghar, following in the footsteps of hyper-naturalistic greats like Chaitanya Tamhane's Court and Somnath Pal's animated short Death of A Father, is shot in the narrative language of a documentary. The place is the protagonist, while people come and go. But there's an extra dimension here – time. After all, life is nothing but a cyclical response to remembrance. As a result, Ghamak Ghar adopts the visual language of a fiction film. Everything is designed, with non-actors and locals visibly emulating memories of the director's own family. What this does is evoke a sensory illusion in which realism is simultaneously being created and captured. Frames are being painted but life is being recorded.
This blend of live-action portraiture informs the viewing experience. It helps the mind attach a thought to every memory that's not ours. For instance, the film opens with what looks like a still image – a field, a footpath and a large tree in the distance. Suddenly, a gentle breeze makes the grass sway, breaking our reverie and briefly turning the image into a postcard with an imaginary date and address. Similarly, every other vignette of the village has the body of a moment but the soul of a feeling. The treatment comes full circle in how the static camera stays on an empty space for seconds after the "characters" exit – as if to juxtapose, within the same frame, the way we remember a place against the way a place remembers us.
Moreover, each phase is shot in a different colour tone and aspect ratio. 1998 is filmed like a photo album, bustling with faded shades and faces and future anecdotes, making the house appear larger and the corridors longer – precisely as they might have looked to the director in his adolescence. In 2010, a teenager flips through the pages of this photo album in a lovely scene where his uncle nostalgically narrates to him the essence of images we only saw minutes ago. By now, the members of the family congregating are older, edgier, more distant, and on the verge of going their own ways. 2010 is also the film's longest phase, perhaps reflecting the director's subconscious urge to hang onto a time when the house was still a window – albeit a crumbling one – into their combined history. The humans continue to be shot like space, with the depth and omnipresence of a background, while the house is shot with a melancholic gaze otherwise reserved for human actions. The widescreen of 2019, present day, makes the house look emptier but smaller and unrecognizable without its people. Understandably, this is the shortest phase in terms of screentime. The demise of a place is more unsavoury than the demise of a person – a human dies, but it's a specific idea of humanity and familyhood that dies with every place.
Gamak Ghar might have been conceived as a semi-autobiographical ode to the irony of evolution, but it is also fashioned to instill a sense of reckoning within its viewers. All of us march forward by hoping to forget what we leave behind. We grow intellectually by elevating places into people – home into parents, ancestral home into grandparents, schools into teachers, playgrounds into friends and pets. And we grow emotionally by relegating people to phases – childhood, young adulthood, college, parenthood. I had all the time in the world to forget my grandparents and the summers I spent with them; they became flashbacks in the ongoing movie of my existence. But they had less time to forget me; I was not a phase or a place to them, but a fickle epilogue to their existence. A film like this lulls us into remembrance – and by extension, the cyclical nature of life. It serves as a comforting and discomforting reminder that, once the march ends for the autumn to begin, a time will come when there's nobody left to leave behind. All we can do then is look behind. At photographs, at paintings or if we're lucky, a charming little hybrid of both.