Writer-Director: Earthling Koushalya
Cinematography: Maverick Dass
Music: Sri Vijay, Sagishna
Cast: Harish Uthaman, Tareetha ET, Living Smile Vidya, Mageswari Arunagiri
Ashvamithra is a film about what goes on inside the mind of Mithra (Tareetha ET), a little girl who lives with her single mother after her father’s passing. At the beginning of the film, her mother is worried because Mithra has not been responding or speaking to anyone for a few weeks — she just plays by herself all day. Arun, a child therapist and social worker, begins to visit her everyday. In an echo of Mithra’s situation, he has a persistent stammer and avoids speaking if he can — but he speaks freely with children. Instead of directly externalizing Mithra’s mind, director Earthling Koushalya superbly uses Arun as an empathetic lens through which to view Mithra. Ashvamithra connects us to the mind of a child through the eyes of a vulnerable adult still troubled by his inner child.
As Arun works with Mithra, we get to know about his past trauma through economical voiceovers. They give us a feeling that Arun is still healing inside himself and helping other children as an extension of this process. In fact, at a point in the film he even says that he sits with Mithra everyday because it gives him peace, even though progress is slow. Arun is not just trying to help Mithra, he’s helping her by simultaneously helping himself.
Ashwamithra superimposes Arun’s journey as Mithra’s therapist onto his own journey out of a difficult childhood. This elevates a simple story about dealing with a difficult child into one about mutual recognition and empathy between two human beings, irrespective of their biological ages. They might not share the exact traumatic past (Arun’s father is abusive while Mithra’s dies) but the fact that they share a similar one brings them together (as both use not speaking as a way of coping). Even though the biological ages of Mithra and Arun are vastly different, Arun connects to Mithra through the child in him. He doesn’t heal her as an adult who knows better but merely bears witness to her without judgement — just as Arun’s own mother did with him (as a quick voiceover tells us).
During most of Arun’s sessions with Mithra, she is drawing something that doesn’t make sense to us at first. But we understand what Arun draws. It’s the back of an elephant in the first session, probably alluding to the fact that he’s seeing just one aspect of her. When he’s unable to make headway, we see him draw a spiral that keeps going around in circles. Just as we pay attention to what Arun draws, he pays attention to what Mithra draws — and that’s how he’s able to figure out how to heal her.
Harish Uthaman and Tareetha ET are superb and though most of the film is an almost documentary-like depiction of their time together in a small room, it never gets repetitive. Something new happens every time and the details keep adding up to create more complete pictures of their minds and emotions.
If the pictures they drew told us something about what Mithra and Arun were dealing with, the sea is a recurring image in Ashwamithra that shows Arun’s journey through the process. At first, when he’s completely ignored by Mitra, we see Arun sitting far into the shore untouched by the sea’s water. When Mithra finds out that Arun has a stammer in the presence of adults, she begins to identify with him, and we get a visual of Arun walking into the sea. And when finally Mithra accepts Arun as a friend, the tide rises and crashes into the beach.
Another beautiful image is used in the end by reimagining a rocking chair as a horse (‘ashva’ in Sanskrit) on which Arun (whose name means Sun) rides along with Mithra. It’s the loss of this ‘horse’ that had caused Mithra to go silent. The title, like Mithra’s mind, is a little riddle that explains itself in the end: Ashvamithra, or Mithra and her horse.