Having just emerged from the cheer of his Netflix show Delhi Crime winning an International Emmy award, Adil Hussain is ready with an OTT release. An actor propelled by the emotions his characters evoke, from shaanth (tranquil) to hasya (laughter), karuna (compassion) to shringar (erotic/romantic love), even roudra (fury), it’s difficult to pigeonhole him — and how we feel — in Nirvana Inn, as things get adbhutha (bizarre). Simmering beneath the surface is a Stephen-King-like invitation, “We all float down here…You’ll float, too.”
If a thriller could spook without any jump scares, this is it. It affirms that feeling nothing — neither indifference, nor nihilistic — can be a legit feeling. The film was premiered under “A Window on Asian Cinema” section at the prestigious 2019 Busan International Film Festival, followed by a world tour, and a Best Actor win for Adil, along with his role in Prakash Jha’s Pareeksha, at the IndoGerman Film Week in September. The film will have a digital release, on the pay-per-view Cinemapreneur on December 11, for 99 hours (pre-bookings are open).
Vijay Jayapal’s sophomore film Nirvana Inn (2019) is an intelligent attempt. Though the road may be a little bumpy, the ride is notches above his first outing. It opens, in the David Lean-esque wide, establishing shot of the picturesque Naggar in Himachal Pradesh — we see a cigarette-puffing Adil run down the mountains and suddenly appear in close-up, guilt and fear written on his face. Cut to him drowning in, presumably, the Brahmaputra, the gamusa by his side. Words haven’t yet entered the landscape, when they do, the expository dialogues mar while the silent exchanges/one-liners elevate.
Adil’s Jogiraj Chakraborty or Jogi (pronounced Zogi in Assamese), at present, is a caretaker of Nirvana Inn – a liminal space, where, as the Eagles sang, You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave – in the hills, far removed from his past. A suicidal boatman on Majuli island, he’d capsized his vessel, apparently killing the passengers (the director drew the idea from the 2015 Germanwings Flight 9525 crash), who visit this purgatory to make him own up his crime. Atonement alone can lead to nirvana (liberation/salvation). Bhoot (ghosts and the past) haunt Jogi. The film, then, is the manifestation of a survivor’s guilt, and his mental spiral.
Jayapal’s Tamil-Malayalam bilingual became a Hindi film with Adil’s entry, Kerala became Assam, and sattriya/bhaona replaced Kathakali, since he had 15 days, not six months, to prepare. Nirvana Inn works as a double bill to Adil’s 2017 National Film Award-winning Hotel Salvation (Mukti Bhawan), both as layovers to the other/after world, but unlike the former, there are no transgressions or running away in the latter. The inn and caretaker motifs in Nirvana Inn are unmistakably a hat-tip to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980).
In a double-treat moment, Adil has a tête-à-tête with his past self/alter ego (a Jayapal go-to, seen earlier in his debut 2016 Tamil social drama Revelations, also on Cinemapreneur.com). The “other” is always watching the “self” – a folk horror trope. It stalks him in the woods, wearing a demon mask, harking back to Jogi’s folk bhaona dance-drama days – yes, Adil danced. There’s a fight sequence, too.
Outside its immediate universe, the film and Jogiraj Chakraborty – a name that could be Assamese Bengali – can be read in a new light amid the NRC/CAA talks. The other/outsider is familiar terrain as Adil has earlier played Shem, a dkhar (half Khasi-half foreign), in the 2019 Khasi noir Lorni – The Flaneur (in Revelations, Chetan Kadambi’s Tamilian Manohar is an “other” in alien Kolkata). In Nirvana Inn, the psychological horror spills out of the inn, onto the countryside (half-imagined things appear in the forests). Jogi, like Srikanta (Adil’s 2004 Bengali debut Iti Srikanta), is “scared… can’t really stay alone when (he) ought to”, what haunts the two are a world apart. The inhabitants of Nirvana…, like the Eagles sung, “are all prisoners of (their) own device”. The horror is in how patriarchy plays out, whether in seeing women as objects to be violated/saved by men, how female homoeroticism can be damaging, or possessed, feral young women to be chained and exorcised by men.
The taut and gripping narrative owes it to its women. Especially Rajshri Deshpande’s Mohini (translates to temptress) – in a Menaka-Vishwamitra-way – here to break Jogi (translates to saint). Mohini, the classic imperil – though no sleazeball – and like the creepy children of the dead family that checks into Nirvana, is typical of the horror genre. She even intoxicates Sandhya Mridul’s Leela (think shrooms, think the 2019 Midsommar). Leela means divine play, one that is between Jogi and Mohini – the line that corporeal Jogi can’t cross, the spectral Mohini does. Leela also means creation/cosmos, and, like the others, she never leaves, the filmmaker has been at the inn, perhaps, from a time before Jogi. This could be her story too, the story of a creator whose creation – even if it’s still in her head – drives her insane. Mridul, in the second half of the film, is a revelation, the switch in her personae electric. Both have already exhibited their prowess, Deshpande’s brief stints with Sexy Durga, Sacred Games and Angry Indian Goddesses, and Mridul’s two-decade-long career, from a solid-content/acting television era (Banegi Apni Baat, Koshish-Ek Aashaa) to an Anurag Kashyap short or a Pan Nalin film. They can chew more than they bite.
The music, like in The Shining, has a character of its own, jarring in bits, palpably ominous, builds up the atmospheric eeriness, reaching a crescendo. The high is in the low as the enduring (mountains) segues into the ephemeral (water). Liberation awaits the immersing of inner demons. Cinema should tell by not revealing. It is, to lift Adil’s words from Life of Pi (2012), “a spectacle. Don’t let the stories and pretty lights fool you.”
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