Director: Parth Saurabh
Writer: Parth Saurabh, Abhinav Jha
Cast: Abhinav Jha, Tanaya Khan Jha, Dheeraj Kumar
Streaming on: Mubi
When a couple elopes in a movie, their love becomes a story. And this story is often immortalised by the tragedy that awaits them. The romance is fuelled by a sense of shared rebellion. It shines until there’s someone to defy — society, family, bigotry, history. But what if there’s nothing left to fight? What happens when escaping is no longer the language of those who run? By unfolding in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic — at a time when the world itself is a slow-burning tragedy — Parth Saurabh’s Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar (“both sides of the pond”) reveals a young couple struggling to retain the relevance of their love story. Priyanka (Tanaya Khan Jha) and Sumit (Abhinav Jha) are back in the place they eloped from two years ago. It’s supposed to be temporary. Their accommodation reflects the distance between expectations and reality: A mansion that’s now a dilapidated boys’ hostel. Priyanka urges Sumit to find a job so that they can get back on their feet — the feet that had once helped them to flee life in pursuit of a grand narrative. Except, nobody is chasing them anymore.
The beauty of Saurabh’s film is that it stays rooted in the emotional ambiguity between remission and relapse; adolescence and adulthood; a pitstop and a return. As in Sairat (2016), the newness of a big city might have sustained the pressure to be together. But it’s the familiarity of a hometown that creates the pressure to be themselves. The obligation to justify their love as an act of resistance starts to fade. Slowly but steadily, both Sumit and Priyanka get restored to their default setting; to the individuals they were before they turned plural. Romance was the parachute that helped them jump, but now that they’re back, the parachute has nowhere to go; it is bereft of use and identity. Given the way Bihar’s Darbhanga is shot — like it’s being discovered and rediscovered at once; like a memory flouting its own stillness — the film implies that post-lockdown nostalgia plays a role. Like millions of people around the globe, the couple, too, is on a subliminal quest to capture the Old Normal.
The past, once their enemy, is now comforting and rose-tinted, as a result of which their head seeks the halo of pre-pandemic life. Not unlike a boarding-school student visiting home for the holidays, Sumit is lulled back to his loafer days. He makes up for lost time by wasting it, drinking and smoking and bantering with childhood friend Nihal (Dheeraj Kumar), under the pretext of finding work. He behaves like he expects life to continue after this unscheduled break. Money is dire, and yet he revels in the illusion of being the breadwinner. Priyanka, too, looks longingly at a college across the street every morning. She wants to study again, and tries reconnecting with her estranged parents. It’s like the town magically taps into the teenager in her, regardless of what transpired in between. The Darbhanga she returns to looks more vulnerable — and therefore more inviting — than the one she left.
The film does a wonderful job of contextualising the tension between who they are and who they think they should be. The 4:3 aspect ratio and long takes allow this duality to bleed through — it makes most scenes look like a portrait that’s protesting against its own self-contained nature. It evokes the experience of watching photographs in motion, where the humans in them are torn not only between space and time, but also between agency and fate. What this visual aesthetic does is pit the absolute dimensions of storytelling against the blunt edges of life. There’s a curated distance between the camera and its frames, which implies that the characters are somehow the foreground, and backdrop, at once. It’s an effective way to show that the heart is rarely tamed by the aspect ratios of hope. It’s another striking page from the ‘Darbhanga New Wave’ playbook, sharing a multiverse with the small-town anxieties of Dhuin (2022) — a film by Achal Mishra (also the director of Gamak Ghar), who is not only the architect of this movement, but also the designer and producer of Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar.
In an effort to reclaim purpose, the couple almost behaves like they eloped from the big city; like they had to defy loneliness, joblessness, a broken healthcare system and urban apathy; like they’re on the run from an uncertain ending. If we didn’t know any better, Darbhanga looks like a refuge from the hostility of their future. They’re far away – leading a makeshift existence in a glorified store room, dreaming of a 2-BHK flat, living on takeaway food and buying a small stove. It’s as if they’re willing something to rebel against so that their relationship stays shaped by crisis. The little touches go a long way. For instance, their surnames are never revealed, because it doesn’t seem to matter. The pandemic has democratised the perception of societal prejudice and conflict. Sumit could be from an underprivileged background, and Priyanka from an upper-caste household, but the divide that united them has lost its sense of transgression. Their differences mean little when the institution of living itself is under siege.
There’s a scene of Priyanka catching up with a college friend, who is also named Priyanka, as if to bring her face to face with an alt-reality version of herself. The young woman she meets is resigned to her existence as a docile wife; her husband is possessive and controlling, and her brother chaperones her everywhere. Both women express concern for each other’s partners, but in a way that implies denial about their own circumstances. A regular film might have used this meeting as a turning point for the protagonist, where she feels a surge of gratitude for her man-child boyfriend after seeing the brutal patriarchy she escaped. But Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar offers no cinematic resolutions. If anything, the chat widens Priyanka’s resentment for Sumit — he might be only mildly toxic compared to the others, but that doesn’t make him a Good Guy. His lack of intent is just as oppressive. In her very next scene, we see Priyanka a bit tipsy. And even though she is playful, it’s clear that she has spent these few hours struggling to tell the devil from the deep sea. Is she Priyanka or Priyanka with an asterisk?
Taniya Khan Jha is excellent here, because she manages to convey the melancholy of someone coming to terms with a no-win choice. When a drunk Priyanka mock-slaps Sumit and breaks into giggles, she’s actually venting at him for letting her down. She’s berating him for pushing her away. The violence isn’t entirely in jest. Even when she gets on top of him later, she pauses for a moment and observes his face before kissing him — a gesture that straddles the tantalising bridge between make-up sex and break-up sex. The actress portrays Priyanka as the more polished partner, but also as someone who is willing to buy into conventional gender norms if he dignifies their runaway tale.
Abhinav Jha is so natural that he’s nearly uncomfortable to watch. His performance turns Sumit into a blueprint of passive masculinity. At some level, the character himself seems to be performing — as a lover, a friend, a provider, a hustler and a striver. He likes the concept of Priyanka, because it gives him a false sense of security and lets him feel more sorted than the rest of Darbhanga. He doesn’t take her threats seriously, for he’s the sort of chap who thinks this is his coming-of-age journey and she’s merely his enabler. He has no idea that the tragedy isn’t awaiting them; it’s already underway. So it’s only fitting that this couple — who had nobody left to fight — finds each other to defy. It’s only fair that their love disintegrates into a story.