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Barah by Barah frames an affecting portrait of an ancient holy town in transition

Director Gaurav Madan and co-writer Sunny Lahiri give a fresh perspective on Varanasi, through the eyes of a death photographer

Written by Shubhra Gupta |
October 4, 2021 11:30:33 am
sunday eye, shubhra guptaA still from Gaurav Madan’s film Barah by Barah

The first thing that strikes you about Barah by Barah, set in Varanasi, is its tremendous lived-in feel. The spaces that the film inhabits we have seen before — the narrow gullies that lead to the Manikarnika Ghat with the ever-burning pyres, the banks of the Ganga which is home to those who have traditionally made a living off the dead, the sellers of the wood, the pandits who preside over the rituals for the departed soul, the barbers who shave the heads of the men of the deceased’s family. What director Gaurav Madan does, through the story he co-wrote with his long-time collaborator Sunny Lahiri, is to give us a fresh perspective on this holiest of towns, through the eyes of the “death photographer”, a man who takes photographs of the dead, as a keepsake and an eternal memory.

Sooraj is the last of his dwindling tribe. Everyone these days has camera phones, and his services are no longer needed. Still, every day he gets ready with his trusty camera, waiting for customers in his “studio”, inches away from the passing “arthis”. He follows funeral processions, with his offer — (Rs 100 for a photo which is 3×4 inches, or Rs 200 for 4×7 inches) — and he returns home, mostly empty-handed, to his wife Meena, his young schoolgoing son, and to his father who is phlegmatically counting out his days on a charpaai (cot) in the aangan ( courtyard).

Films set in Varanasi are fatally attracted to exoticism, regardless of where the filmmaker is from. Even the most determinedly realistic of movies set in this town — long the magnet for navel-gazers from around the world seeking sanyaas and spiritual gurus, or those who make it their final destination — are overlaid by a little extra glow and grandeur of the Ganga Aarti, or lay a little more emphasis on the picturesque “chillum-smoking sadhus”. Madan stays strictly away from these temptations. What we get is an affecting portrait of an ancient town in transition: even as the faithful try to hold on to the past, a few, which include people like Sooraj and his close friend Dubey, whose desperate hold on his crumbling ancestral home loosens reluctantly but inevitably, give in to change.

The authenticity flows not just from the locations, but also from the characters. Sooraj (Gyanendra Tripathi), his attractive, supportive wife Meena (Bhumika Dube), his father (Harish Khanna), his sister Mansi (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) who left for Delhi several years ago, and his friend Dubey (Aakash Sinha), all feel just right. “We were very clear that we wanted to show contemporary reality, not over-romanticise anything,” says Madan, who shot the film on celluloid, making it almost an ironic counterpoint to the digital overtake of his lead character.

Barah by Barah is currently doing the film festival rounds, and hoping for the right platform to showcase its wares widely soon. Keep an eye out for it.

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