Sunday, March 4, 2018

Notes on a cinematic journey called Ashwatthama, by Pushpendra Singh, India: 2017

I see the curious rapid change of the light and shade, I see distant lands as real and near to the inhabitants of them as my land is to me.”
( Salut Au Monde from Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman)

The beginning of this film is like a birth. Before the first light appears we hear a woman talking to her son. She tells him the story of Ashwatthama, a tragic character from the Indian mythology, who was cursed and became an immortal but lost soul. I am not familiar with the Indian mythology which varies from region to region in this complex culture of the Indian sub continent. But I have already a guide which will lead me through this film which will open my eyes and my ears, the curious and open hearted boy Ishvaku who is discovering the world around him. The film is like discovering another world manifested in 2 hours film.

The film is shot in Black and White. Only very few hint´s give an idea that the film is less engrossed from our time than we might think. Only very short colored moments interrupt the atmosphere of the film. They appear like subtle distortions in the space time continuum of the film´s universe.
I remember a shot near the beginning. Ishvaku is feeding the pigeons in the backyard. The backyards is closed by walls. Behind Ishvaku we see a window which leads to the world outside the barrier. The boy is totally absorbed by his action, like I am absorbed by the rich texture of this image. After a while , Ishvaku goes to the entrance of the house and disappears inside this entrance which is hardly more visible than a black spot in this image. For a moment, the camera stays with us and the pigeons in this backyard.
The vision of this piece of world does not seem to be forced at all. It is one of many moments in this film which demand nothing else than attention but it rewards you with a celebration of cinema as the art of seeing.
There is this strong feeling for confidence in cinema, confidence in what the filmmaker has seen, confidence in the apparatus which recorded it – and finally confidence that these images will unfold their intensity and often breathless beauty by themselves.

There must be a relation between the many stories told by the characters to each other and how the film´s narration creates a whole universe of stories which define a culture but also a human life. This collecting of vocally told stories is interwoven the film´s visual and audible narration. The smallest moments, seemingly non events are beside tragic moments which appear as not emphasized. The emotions which will be nevertheless evoked as the film proceeds are the results of attention, of experience and not formed by forced dramatic storytelling. But especially in its nearly shy reservation, the film often appears to me this “sense of wonder” like the time when I discovered cinema for myself.

In its dynamic between intensity and a nearly minimalistic reluctance, Ashwatthama recalls in me the journey I had with the films by Taiwanese Hou hsiao Hsien, especially with Hsimeng Rensheng (The Puppet master, 1993). In Hou´s work there was a movement from explicit autobiographical inspired films to a quest for history and culture of Taiwan but as well a quest for finding his own specific vision of cinema (evident in his famous extreme long shots). In another kind but with an equal intensity, Ashwattham has the range between personal memories, a precise look to the part of the world the director comes from but as well an own unique vision of cinema.

A brief look back to February 2014 where Pushendra Singh´s first long feature Lajwanti had its world premiere at the Forum of the Berlin Film festival. It happens seldom in my life time that a debut of a new talented filmmaker caused so much expectations for the near future. Legendary film debuts from the history of cinema like the ones by Satyajit Ray, Terrence Malick, Orson Welles or Aparna Sen happened either before my life time or outside of my awareness. With , one of the two finest films I saw at this festival in the last 12 years, I witnessed such a revelation.

After the house is attacked by bandits, Ishvaku´s mother is killed and he moves with his father to relatives. This is one of the few but pointed tragic turning points of this film which create a new situation for the protagonists. A place in the world is lost, a new one has to be found. When they arrive at their new home, the protagonists and the film spend time with mourning. As I said earlier I have not understood all codes and rituals, this is a moment which affected me a lot. The impact of the loss of a beloved person is caused by memories of my own close persons or in so many moments I have seen in the films by John Ford, Yasujiro Ozu, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Terrence Malick or Satyajit Ray.

The interiors are often sparsely lighted. The interiors are places of shelter and privacy. The implicitness of light our eyes are used by so much bad television features where we always see everything is now suspended. As films often pretend there is a a definite place in the world. True cinema and especially films like Ashwatthama suggest to find a place in the world is a permanent search.

In an interview Pushpendra Singh tells about how he developed the film with inspirations from own memories. Some characters are based on close relatives. Singh has really lived in the region where the film takes place. Even without having read this interview, one can get the an idea about this film in many moments as felt memories. But Ashwatthama also offers something like an ethnographic look to its own culture. The universal and the personal, the prosaic and the poetic are often evident interwoven in single moments. There is a small moment when a young woman, the eldest cousin of Ishvaku combs the boy´s hair. Both are looking into a mirror. They look at themselves. It reminds me in some moments in Lajwanti when we see Sanghmitra Hitaishi´s character looking into a mirror. This is a strange revelation to look at people who are looking at themselves. As we trying to get an image of this world and its people visible, we have to realize that these people have already an image of themselves which is not necessarily identical with our image of them.

The more the film proceeds the more we are absorbed by this look to a piece of the world. There are often recurring motives, family meetings or reunions of this community sitting around a campfire and listening to musicians who perform their songs.
The specific sense of time seems to be adapted from the specific sense of time only children have. The world as an endless huge and rich stage of wonders even though from time to time interrupted by momentous events. Some times the plot seems to melt away and than it comes back with silent but painful fierceness.
Sometimes I feel like talking again and again about so much single moments to articulate this specific “sense of wonder” I experienced. The more the film proceeds, the more I feel - despite its often seemingly non events or especially because of it – what I will call a poetic breath. Some times we are absorbed by what the images present and than the awareness of the artist and this apparatus called cinema reappears and with it the cognition that cinema is especially because its ability to create an artificial memory – cinema is desperate and heartbreaking resistance against death and caducity.

There is one unforgettable moment which is representative for the film´s spirit and the delicate style the film is made with. As much as the characters are absorbed by their world and their actions it does not mean they are always accepting their fate without reluctance. The scene , I want to refer is not only a foreshadowing of a tragic event, it is also a striking moment when these children are confronted with invisible and nameless borders. During the film Ishvaku has developed a strong bond with his deaf cousin Laali, a girl who is about the same age like him. They often stroll together through this stony and sparse landscape. One day Ishvaku is sent to school. The relatives decide that Laali shall go too. The school scene seems to be made in one long shot. The perspective is the one of the children who are sitting in front of the teacher, the board and the desk. The seemingly impassive camera evokes a strong sense of power and the little children bodies are exposed to the moody upright standing strict teacher. The view is bouncing to the wall with the board and the teacher and the wall. When the teacher learns of Laali´s deafness, he chases the two children away. The insulted children leave the school and the frame. The fact that the echo of their humiliation the insult of discrimination is left to our imagination. For a moment we remain in this picture looking at the children exposed to this teacher and the wall. For a moment the eyes are prisoners in this room. How the cruelty unfolds in this one moment is intense and afterwards a heartbreaking nearly traumatic moment.

We have seen Laali and Ishvaku discovering the endless world, now witness how they
bounce against meaningless man-made borders.
We gave seen them walking through ruins which are almost in the process to migrate into the landscape they are once built on. It is an image presenting fugacity of human cultures. It evokes a muted melancholy in me. Where it comes from, I can not tell. More and more cracks appear in this world.
The elder cousin who was supposed to be forced into an arranged marriage, has escaped. She resists and disappears. A woman is beaten. The world- or better - the world defined by men with its rules and its order unfolds its complex ambivalence.

Ashwatthama, this kaleidoscope of people , stories and landscapes appears to me as a miracle which does not really stop when the two hours film have ended. It continues to have an effect in my memory. Just the kind how characters are entering a frame and leaving it, stays with me. Sometimes the combination of image and sound widens the world, sometimes image and sound reveal its borders. The visible and the invisible can be experienced similarly. I have no idea which moves me more, the stylistic and daring consequence of this film or its incredible delicateness.
And it is one of theses films I have a hard time to let it go. And yes I have to remember again Walt Whitman´s imagined journey around the world in his poem Salut Au Monde.

Ashwatthama is sone of these cinematic miracles which refer to the great past of cinema but at the same time to its future. The film is still new and still on its journey through film festivals. From time to time, cinema needs a radical redefinition such as Ashwatthama to move forward.

There are these two precious gifts, Pushpendra Singh gave to cinema, the one is Lajwanti, the other is Ashwatthama. Now it is turn of what we call the public world of cinema to proof if it deserves these gifts. About one thing I am absolutely sure – I can´t imagine a near future of cinema without Pushpendra Singh.

Rüdiger Tomczak


  1. A great read.... thanks for your contributions into Indian cinema

    1. Thank you. Films like Ashwatthama are an amazing rewards.