“Let’s watch a film,” he gently proposed after inviting me over. Wouldn’t hurt for a build-up, I mused, measuring my date once more and thinking if there’d be a better opportunity than this to figure out how his mind works. “Smooth,” I quipped.
On a frosty January night in Delhi-NCR, perhaps, no other climax could be better feigned but for two strangers, mildly buzzed and both miles away from home, to take recourse to streaming Indie films, and just getting the required cosy to ignite the right amount of warmth to ward off chills. No wonder, the brewing sexual tension warranted a welcome intervention.
While plenty of hints crept in his brief gesture of easing up and making things comfortable for me, what I wasn’t prepared for was the inexplicable rush of reminiscence that would course through my being as his mobile screen revealed itself with imagery I wouldn’t certainly imagine on a date night—tender as it grew.
Keeping eyes trained on such visual endearment was hard as is which is why it demanded not just a mere review but revisits and trips down memory lane and all the way back to my hometown along the banks of Hooghly river to uncover the essence of what had been left unuttered.
The Tale of a House Built on the Mosaic of Memories
The eerily nostalgic opening score set the tone for what appeared to be an indulgent watch—a slow rumination. Titled ‘Gamak Ghar’, the film opens with shots of a lonesome countryside, and expansive pastures wherein a wide tree along a deserted pathway becomes the guiding factor—an epistle for the life that is about to unfold. A quiet and delicate bearing of things only occasionally punctuated with birdsong and chirpings of children playing in the courtyard flanking a quaint yet affluent home with glimpses of its demure lifestyle embedded in its windings.
Sound of kitchen activities and women engaged in daily chores to put the house in order and harmony. The paltry flickering sunbeams playing chiaroscuro on objects seemingly simple—emblematic of a village household. A tulsi plant, clothesline, a white ambassador parking, declaring the arrival of guests from town, an empty chair firm on its legs through the transition of its occupants, and raw mangoes are whispers of life most leave behind as chronicles of the past one would fight the impulse to relive.
Glimpses of bounty in sheer ordinariness lend them a transient quality. Hawker’s calls, the subdued chatter of neighbours, the crackle of fritters as sides of afternoon meal.. all suggesting a brief transport to the pages of ‘Malgudi days’.
Zooming in, we get a sense of a joint family with extended offshoots and its dynamics playing out. Patriarchy rules here—unbothered from being ruffled or tossed off like a game of cards men of the house take pride acing, in leisurely abundance. Their conversations spiral around the usual matter of facts, asking whereabouts and reveling in a certain self-contentedness that the city folks could only dream of but hardly achieve or ever reclaim.
Venturing further into the film that traces three different timelines, the viewer could find alternating between the impression of a nomad’s paradise or the story of someone strongly tied to roots—an enchanting lore of returning to a home that is naught to be.
Grandmother's Touch, Melting Winter's Sun, Groves & Potpourri
The members of the family are tied in rare togetherness, blissfully tempered, oft-interred by the city-returning folks who bring a part of their modern living and stir urbanness into age-old values—effects of migration for identity and prospects that a cocooned existence in an underdeveloped region possibly can’t merit.
The birth of a child, the ceremonies practiced and the treatment of women surrounding the sole event, speak volumes of gender roles and the honour attached not only to the outcome of a healthy child but a male one at that. The coming together of the village to mark the occasion as ‘auspicious’ is a reflection of community life where the women bless the newborn with song offerings while the men seem to be interested in the grand feast only. The clever use of folk songs from the oral repository of crooners adds a touch of sublimity complementing the visual aesthetics of the film.
There’s not much and yet there is prosperity quite becoming of a household on the higher end of the caste or feudal society.
The matriarch of the house—a mother-in-law bred with values of the past invested in her sons’ lives, symbolises a quiet resistance to the change that characterises individual trajectories with the passing of time and changing of seasons. She embodies the aspirations of progress, fitting into and finding a space of her own in a nuclear set-up—a means to beat her loneliness and stay connected to her once fuller family. Death happens as part of a natural progression. Motion and absences make a recurring motif throughout the film.
Remember the times when home-played DVDs used to be an exercise in bonding with the younger lot–brothers, sisters, nephews, and nieces alike? Choosing a Salman Khan or a Bobby Deol film for evening entertainment seemed like a tough call but a veritable means to stay hooked to the wonders of a tinsely parallel verse. Or making a family photograph, for that matter, a means to piece together the frayed ends into an institutional oneness, just to briefly absolve from the sad reality of partings that were inevitable and have the moment captured in old reels for posterity.
Every family is rendered unique by its familial history. The gorgeous spread of ‘kash’ flowers gently wavering on screen, plays a brief interlude to the generational shift where kitaabs and study books of kids stand replaced with smartphones but yet the yearning to uncover mysteries in form of inheritable paraphernalia somehow binds the returnees to the ancestral place. The erstwhile habit of note-taking in diaries or old albums stands out, particularly in reconciling with the past.
New induction in the family sheds light on maternity health and undoing of taboos whilst ushering in a welcome change wherein the educated entrant, who also happens to be a doctor can be seen enjoying tea rather than concerning herself with kitchen duties: an arena assigned to the widows or those less fortunate to not have rushed through the social ladder.
Arrivals and departures become routine affairs. People move on with modern, manageable properties in tier-1 cities.The house remains still, ominous and poignant—soaking in all the desertion and isolation that ensues, gracefully.
One could be sweetly surprised by the lyrical tonality of the Mythili tongue etching out a less familiar Bihar, unlike the glaring and gung-ho mannerism projected in mainstream representation. The soft and soothing tone of the language has a way of dissolving conflicts and kindness bringing a certain cadence to conversations that appear intimate and yet almost a mythical form of communication.
The misty breaking of dawn, the lush and livid landscapes, a well-lit fire against the winter greys and the use of mosquito nets dominate the visual grammar and lend a layered depth to the frames. The Chhat Puja celebrations by the riverside tie the village that acquiesce the urban viewer with rituals of the hinterland, make for stunning, featuresque visuals that dominate the film’s cinematography like no other.
Ghar or home has different connotations for different people. Or just feelings of belongingness caged in a pickle jar, fermenting and waiting for the lid to be opened and savoured by some keen observant—bloodline or not.
We see the film closing with the house being refurbished for an initiation ceremony and beyond: chunks falling off like the remains of the past and sites of memories that couldn’t be saved.
Director Achal Mishra who spent a sizeable part of his life in a nearby town, captures these intricacies with refreshing originality in his debut that lends a transcendental quality to shared stories of a generation lost in translation. The film went on to win several accolades but its greatest achievement would be a gentle nudge to those who ache to return to the soil that makes them and take a whiff of the petrichor.
Time Travel in Search of Untenable Traces Of Life
Call it serendipity or happenstance, my ancestral home in West Bengal, underwent a similar deluge of shifts and yet stands tall and riveted, untouched by urban machinations. Boasting a blueprint of sixty years, the house, built by my late grandfather and survived by an octogenarian grandmother—almost an apparition of yesteryears, stands testament to the travails of a chequered past; a foray into another dimension.
Like every family fraught with its own share of secrets, frictions, misunderstandings and sudden drifts, mine wasn’t any exception. I remember visiting the house fondly as a kid on numerous occasions and holidays, welcomed to partake in activities—be it during Diwali cracker-bursting or trudging the streets with my make-shift miniature during rathyatra.
Was too young to discern then but I was no stranger to how the room delegated to my mother as a new bride and while fostering a newborn, transformed into an office space once we shifted base, that now hoards files and tonnes of paperwork for the family business.
The backyard hosted silent party for discarded playthings and scrapbooks of my growing-up years. Tradition has it, the first rice-eating of a child is celebrated and I had my grains spilled over the red floors of this place.
Nothing is ever truly lost when you look closely. The overarching bamboo shoots rustle in agreement.
My secret trips to the terrace floor and recovering books and items of interest from piles of ruin was an adventure I most cherished. Flipping through my grandfather’s books (illegible at that time), his meticulous footnotes, gave me a better window seat to his mind, habits, practices, and ways of life than my personal interactions ever could.
From uninterrupted reverie to high-octane drama to cornered wailings—this house has witnessed it all. Adoration and admonishment took turns in defining my relationship with the space. I adulted faster only to realise that people change but houses have a carrying capacity and a looming effect like nothing else.
In the push and pull of things, I found myself returning to the house only occasionally as a rite of passage to visit my ailing grandmother who is the only person to insist on seeing me and concerning with my state so fervently, handing me a few hundred notes from her stash of cash to buy sweets. “So much of it will cause me diabetes,” I joke. She flicks a toothless smile, failing to counter that or debunking my claims as ‘childish’. Thanks to her, I knew bedtime storytelling of narrations of her childhood in erstwhile Calcutta and her travesty as a child bride and later a mother. Perhaps, another ‘Gamak Ghar’ of her times hidden in those passionate throwbacks. For now, the house and her, both continue to age with full fury and fine wine.
Gamak Ghar was a gentle invitation to ponder on the granular details one often escapes in everyday grind. A lump in the throat, forfeits of a kind, and other melancholies of ‘leaving behind’ you can’t look up even in the dictionary of obscure sorrows.