Director: Manav Kaul
Writer: Manav Kaul
Cast: Harish Khanna, Savita Rani, Ghanshyam Lalsa, Sayani Gupta
Streaming on: Mubi
Tathagat is about a monk in the mountains who is haunted by the world he once renounced. Late into his life, the man receives a letter about the death of a mausi (aunt) from his childhood. The piece of news disrupts his peace, sending him spiralling down a wormhole of childhood memories and incomplete emotions. He considers returning to the society he forsook. A young disciple is troubled by the guru's vulnerability. The old man is plagued by self-doubt: has his holy identity been a ruse for an unholy escape? Has his selfishness been hiding behind a smokescreen of sacrifice all along? I suspect most writers and artists will resonate with the monk's sudden imposter syndrome. After all, what is creating if not the excavation of existing? The best of art, like meditation, is rarely absolute; it often emerges at the intersection of confronting and escaping the truth.
Directed by Manav Kaul, the film is deeply introspective, designed to evoke the look of a wavering spell – or a mind stirring awake from a long dream. Given that Tathagat is about a hermit who has spent his adult life in isolation, the film has every reason to overplay its sensory language. He imagines, thinks, sees and hears more. The result is visibly Terrence Malick-ish: the exaggerated rustling of leaves and grass, whispery voices and tender thoughts, the dripping of a tap, magic-light shots of hands caressing a wild field, the loud buzzing of flies, a melancholic and persistent score, you get the gist. The treatment is certainly not at odds with the themes – of nostalgia, bygone attachments and crippling guilt.
The flashbacks of the monk as a boy named Suraj Singh Negi in his ancestral village are a string of vivid vignettes. The scenes with his aunt and alcoholic father are whimsical, but not for the heck of it. You can sense the film-maker trying to express a time – and how an adult mind perceives a place buried in the recesses of his head. Maybe the sound design could have been more distinct: it's hard to tell the boy's musings from his actual voice. But the warm, nostalgic palette more than makes up for any technical glitches. The storytelling is showy, but also curious about a child's psychology. And if there's one thing we've learnt over the years, a kid's brain can be a melting pot of dramatic narrative devices.
Where Tathagat falters, though, is in its depiction of a man's existential crisis. Actor Harish Khanna immerses himself in a difficult role, but the journey is always at the risk of appearing pretentious. I like the concept of the disciple, Amar (Ghanshyam Lalsa), who is more or less (supposed to be) the ghost of the monk's younger and idealistic self – his presence is inextricably linked to the old man's pursuit of penance. The resolution of their relationship is awkwardly executed but in sync with the film's inward view of remorse. But their exchanges are stilted and heavy-handed, replete with phrases of spirituality rather than genuine turmoil. One senses that the director gets carried away with the idea of a reckoning – which is why, at a cinematic level, the story starts to cannibalize itself. The shots of the monk imagining conversations with the aunt (a mystical Savita Rani), for instance, resort to gimmicky visual crutches: a lingering reflection in a pond, a composition of light and body in a room. After a while, even the music begins to feel disruptive. A particularly dramatic sequence intercuts the cardio-fuelled meltdowns of the old man and the boy – here, too, it's like the act of running itself is staged to determine the emotional volume of the protagonist.
It's never easy to portray a descent into madness, but it's even harder to portray a descent into tranquility. Tathagat straddles the two moods with uneven success. You hear the questions about salvation and solitude. But the answers sound grammatically incorrect. It's the kind of film you really want to experience – to feel – because of how distant it gets. Instead, it emerges at the intersection of confronting and escaping the medium. Manav Kaul's is not a voice I'm willing to forget. But it's one that loses itself in both translation and interpretation.