What Lies Beneath

For her feature film debut Liar’s Dice,which is in competition at the Sundance Film Festival,director Geetu Mohandas took an anthropological approach to an adventure

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza | Published: December 12, 2013 2:12:12 am

For her feature film debut Liar’s Dice,which is in competition at the Sundance Film Festival,director Geetu Mohandas took an anthropological approach to an adventure.

During her travels,Geetu Mohandas would often encounter tiny settlements in remote parts of India and thousands of people who live in those places — faceless,no more than a statistic to the urban elite that decides their fate. Commuting with these people — in trains and buses or other means of public transport — would offer a glimpse into their lives,almost insignificant to city-dwellers.

In 2006,when Mohandas started writing her first feature,the characters seemed to carve themselves out from the very milieu she had been so fascinated with. “People from villages and small towns are migrating to faraway cities every day in search of work. Often they never return,sometimes their families don’t even find out what happened to them,” says Mohandas. This forms the premise for her directorial debut,Liar’s Dice,which has been selected in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Liar’s Dice will premiere at the 10-day festival,which will open in Utah,USA,on January 16. The director — who started her career as a child artiste in Malayalam cinema and eventually worked as a leading lady opposite many big stars including Mohanlal — will then travel with it to the Rotterdam Film Festival. The producers — JAR Entertainment — are in process of signing up international agents. “But I hope the film finds distributors for a theatrical release in India too,” says Mohandas.

The canvas of the film stretches from a picturesque village in Himachal Pradesh,Chitkul — the last one inhabited near the Indo-Tibetan border and home to a tribal community — to the harsh,industrial landscape of Delhi. The film begins with a young mother,Kamla,starting on a journey to Shimla and then Delhi,in search of her missing husband,a construction worker,along with her three-year-old daughter and her lamb. Along the way,she encounters an army deserter on the run,who realises the perils of such a journey and decides to accompany them. Through the circumstances they find themselves in,the story also explores the man-woman relationship.

The film,however,is as much about Kamla’s quest as about the journey the characters undertake. “The film isn’t about their adventure. My approach to it was anthropological with political undercurrents. It attempts to map her flight,the journey as well as the dynamics between the characters as they evolve,” says the director,who shot the village scenes on film camera in order to capture the beauty of the landscape and moved to the digital format when their journey began.

The camera follows the characters unhurriedly across the changing landscape — with noted cinematographer and the director’s husband Rajiv Ravi at the helm — often resting on the characters long enough to map their expressions and body language as they go through a flurry of emotions. The dialogues are kept to a minimum and there is almost no use of background score. The story,therefore,rests in the details.

Keeping that in mind,Mohandas has used actors who could become these faceless characters. Geetanjali Thapa (who also features in Amit Kumar’s Monsoon Shootout) plays the vulnerable yet determined Kamla while four-year-old Manya Gupta — a talent the team discovered in Shimla — is the daughter and the grounding factor in Kamla’s journey. Nawazuddin Siddiqui,who has proved his innate ability to own any character he takes up,is the army man on the run who plays the game of Liar’s Dice when in want of a quick buck.

The shoot,however,began with a skeletal screenplay and no penned dialogues because Mohandas wanted the story to live itself out. “Geetanjali and Nawaz would sometimes be confused about their relationship. Instead of spelling it out,I let that confusion play out on screen because I wanted them to live out the characters and discover the dynamics on their own. Magic on screen just ‘happens’,one cannot pre-plan it,” says the 31-year-old.

The lamb,however,has its own space in the film as it accompanies the characters through the tumultuous journey. “The speechless animal is metaphorical. It stands for the weaker party in this story of prey-and-predator,and of deceit — as the title suggests. It could stand for the husband who is a victim of the system or for Kamla who is braving an unknown world in search of him,” she says.

dipti.nagpaul@expressindia.com

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