Mozart’s Laundate Dominium drifts from a Kolkata house drawing a man to it. He climbs up to find a room full of paintings, made by a visually-impaired boy who lives there. What starts on a note of suspense is actually the unfolding of the story of the boy’s journey, growing up in a village in poverty with his Christian mother, their father having deserted the two. The boy’s friend describes objects to him, takes him to them, such as a train bogie that he touches, imagines how it may look, and translates onto the wall of his house, associating the specific smell with different crayon colours.
One day, the mother gets abducted. Then begins a journey that takes him to the big bad city – the search for light in his dark universe, for his mother. And also for his only other connect to the outside world – his art. Kolkata-boy Satyajit Das’ debut Bengali feature film Paintings in the Dark, that had a five-week run in theaters in February, premiered on African national television in April. It received critic’s choice awards at festivals and had its world television premiere in Russia last weekend.
“I prefer the dark side. It can touch the audience more. They are able to relate to it and I want to gauge how and what they think,” says Das, 24, whose film has travelled to festivals in Kolkata, Slovakia, Cairo, Portugal, Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, the US and Canada. From that darkness is born the idea of spotlighting the world of a visually-impaired painter. Such artistes, including the father of Impressionism Claude Monet in his later years, have fascinated Das, but for his film, he wanted to play with his imagination and not base it on anybody’s life.
In the 80-minute Paintings in the Dark, among the montage of jump cuts, the deft scenes are in the past – in the sepia-hued silences, the wordless exchanges between the mother (played by Odia actor Sreela Tripathy) and the son, the tension build-up and emotional verisimilitude. Das throws in an outlandish experiment – dresses the Christian mother in a way that looks more Iranian, in a long gown, jacket and hijab-like head covering. It was deliberate, admits Kolkata-based Das. The intent was to free it from any contextual shackles, giving it a kind of universality, but the fanboy hat-tip is evident — also in the way light is used, taking from the dark indoors and yellowish outdoor filters of ’90s Iranian cinema.
It is, in fact, the mother-son relationship that stands out in his work, especially in his second short film, Dui Prithibi (Two World) – the finest among his films. In the 12-minute silent movie, to the backdrop of dhaak beats indicative of Durga Puja, a hapless boy collects and sells garbage to feed and dress his comatose mother, who stares into the blank space, a tear rolling down her cheeks is the only marker of life – the human eyes speak volumes as the camera’s eye drives home the pathos. It’s a story of lost childhood, the baggage of responsibilities as heavy as the garbage bag on his back; he realises the reality of his own dark future when he sees a boy eating phuchka.
“After the 2019 Durga Puja, I saw a boy collecting garbage near a pandal, looking at him the only thing that occurred to me was ‘what could be his story/background?’, says Das, who took from Satyajit Ray’s documentary Two (1964) the idea of the title and the form of a silent film. Astonished by Sneha Biswas’s performance in Manas Mukul Pal’s debut Sahaj Paather Gappo (Colours of Innocence, 2016), a film about unimpeachable optimism in the face of adversity, he cast her as the mother in Dui Prithibi.
The slow and silent treatment of the film, which won the actor, director and cinematographer eight awards across 20 festivals around the world, didn’t excite a popular OTT platform scouting for original content at home. They told him that if the film after release didn’t do well then the OTT holds the right to remove it, and so, Das – whose first movie was the short film Deadline (2018), on gay love and social unacceptance, his homage to the late filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh – has released Dui Prithibi on YouTube. He is still trying the OTT route besides festivals, as he is planning to do with Paintings in the Dark.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines