By Sunil Mehra
PAIRON TALLE is a film that could easily drive away the viewer who’s quick to judge, pronounce, temperamentally unable to wait, persevere, go with the director’s flow: who’s unwilling to let the chilling plot and directorial intent (implosive/low-key/compelling) reveal itself.
The first 10 minutes set the mood of the film. A landscape reveals itself: that remote, surreal, devastated, strangely beautiful, desolate corner of Delhi NCR; buffaloes ambling past a silica mine that once was; an Out of Africa sky. A landscape peop led by lethal, feral, menacing creatures. Only they happen to be human. Like a meticulous chef, Sidharth Srinivasan lays out his ingredients, introduces the dramatis personae before he sets out to tell his story. What could possibly happen here, you wonder. With Hitchcockian deftness, Srinivasan overthrows every assumption as he dives headlong into his narrative.
About a young watchman who guards an abandoned silica mine and office with more alacrity than he does his beautiful wife. About the evil-yet-vulnerable property dealer/ mine owner looking to cash in on both the derelict property and on his delicious daughter, whom he thinks nothing of offering up as a trophy wife/incentive to a prospective buyer as old as him. About the ménage à trois: exploitative mine owner, the watchman, his nubile young wife. About the cop with a canker on his soul, who thinks nothing of handing someone over to a murderer to be hacked to death.
Srinivasan’s feat? We never hate his creatures. These people have made Faustian bargains, are Genetesque dregs-of-the-earth vermin betraying a vestigial vulnerability that endears them to us. Compassion, not unqualified revulsion, is what you feel for them.
There are other characters. The landscape: that quiet hill, that vernal forest. What looks idyllic assumes the mantle of menace, as Srinivasan calibrates plot and lens and camera. The moon. Golden orb looming over emerald lake that suddenly turns into an ominous blot across which dark clouds swirl, giving you the impression that the elements themselves are complicit in the evil unfolding before us. The music. If ever stillness had a voice, a melody, this is what it would sound like.
The bloody denouement is classic BenegalAnkur redux. The worm finally turns. The watchman’s hoarse cry emerges as if from the innards of the Earth; dry, wracking sobs punctuate his primordial grief as he rocks his wife’s corpse in his arms. And then years of impotent rage find a vent as he mercilessly beats the badly injured mine owner to a lifeless pulp.
With Hitchcockian deftness, Srinivasan overthrows every assumption as he dives into his narrative
There are powerful messages embedded in this document: about class, gender, patriarchy, urban/rural fractiousness, rampant greed, venality of land mafias/police, the medievalism of the khaps, the rot in the system. All this finds quiet but compelling articulation. No banners waved, no slogans raised. Hence, laceratingly effective.
Superlative camera by S Nalla Muthu, haunting music by Joana Kompa, sterling performances by newbies Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Saba Joshi and theatre veteran Avtar Sahani. As for the direction: a star is born! Srinivasan is a talent to watch out for.
Mehra is Delhi-based author, journalist and filmmaker.