In Rituparno Ghosh’s Utsab, members of a family come together at their ancestral home on the outskirts of Kolkata to celebrate Durga Puja. This visit to their mother Bhagabati (Madhabi Mukherjee) and brief stay result in hiding — and thus revealing — the tension embedded in their interpersonal relationships. Known for his aesthetics, Ghosh used the interior both as a site of turmoil and revelry: conflicts unfold largely in individual rooms while the foyer with the presence of the goddess holds together the geniality of a family reunion. Spatially and temporally different, Achal Mishra’s Gamak Ghar (streaming on MUBI) is strangely reminiscent of Ghosh’s 2000 film not for the story it chooses to tell but for the one it does not.
Set in Madhopur village near Darbhanga in Bihar, Mishra’s debut feature in Maithali is divided into three time periods — 1998, 2010 and 2019 — and begins with the initiation ceremony of a child. The event calls for extended members of the family to assemble. But instead of introducing, the opening shots familiarise them in relation to the different corners of the house they occupy: the edge of the porch where the matriarch cooked, a little ahead where male members played cards, the courtyard where children ran with each other, the room where the newly born slept.
This distant-close gaze remains unchanged even the next time they come together during Chhath Puja. In the intervening 12 years, the grown-ups have aged and the children have grown up. The kids demand maggi rather than potato fritters and film cameras are replaced by digicam. But the passage of time is reflected most intensely not in the improvement or degradation of filial ties but in the way the house bore imprints of it. The sparseness of the courtyard, dampness of the wall and faded paints on the pillars reek more of prolonged absence than negligence. And finally when we arrive at the present time, only the house remains, lonely and alone.
Even with the apparent difference in storylines, both Ghosh and Mishra’s films serve as excellent companion pieces, for they collectively underline how a house and its people withhold different stories. Initiating from a shared premise, Utsab and Gamak Ghar could have been similar films but they are not. And they differ less in their respective directors’ contrasting narratives and more in their disparate gaze. If Ghosh detailed the lives of those occupying a house, Mishra chooses to tell the story of a house occupied by people. If in Utsab, the house contributes to the strife and ultimately offers the shelter of reconciliation, in Gamak Ghar, the residents partake in filling and then deserting the house. If one looks at what happens inside the house and documents discord and appeasement, another trains lens on how the house looks like when discord and appeasement unfold. And together they illustrate how both a place and the people residing in it are prone to be afflicted by abandonment and decadence, if not at the same time.
Much of the reason for this varied approach rests on their different vantage points. Unlike Utsab which unravels in real time, Gamak Ghar is an affecting exercise in nostalgia. In an interview with Scroll.in, Mishra admitted that the idea was prompted when plans of renovating his family house were being discussed, thereby also implying and justifying the quasi-autobiographical texture of the film. To craft the same, he looks back at the people and the house he knew. The varying stages of recollection is depicted by shooting different time periods in different aspect ratios but this retrospective glance mostly stresses on the specific nature of remembrance, serving as a reason as to why he remembers what he does.
Mishra’s film, a languid admixture of what had happened and what must have happened, refrains from including any jarring dramatic turns. The details it accommodates are mundane — who paid for the initiation ceremony or the man in the neighbourhood who loved to eat — indicative of being heard rather than experienced. Instead, it preoccupies itself solely with the changing contours of the house. The dents on the walls, the broken window suffice as registers of change and an empty chair evokes the presence of its owner.
This becomes his way of suggesting that memory sustains itself in association, that the cruel irony of life is such that a person inhabits a place but a place gets habituated to the person. That they both might have different stories to tell but those withheld by the house will always be about the inmates. Mishra understands this and thus in a film whose roots are deeply entrenched in his own life, he turns people into stories and the house into the storyteller.
In an uncharacteristic tender scene in the 2010 section, two men flip through a photo album, smiling at the image of their grandfather sitting in a chair, women awkwardly huddled together in the courtyard. They might not realise but a part of their delight in revisiting the past stemmed from knowing that all was not lost. Some might have died and some might have left, but the corners occupied by them remained. By the end things change irrevocably and though Gamak Ghar outlines its inevitability, it primarily highlights the need for preservation. For, as the film gently but crucially conveys– what we preserve, preserves us.
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