Biswajeet’s Bora’s Assamese film, God On The Balcony, is inspired from the real-life story of poverty-stricken Dana Majhi from Odisha, who was forced to carry the body of his wife on his shoulders for nearly ten kilometers because the government did not care. The critically acclaimed film has already got Bora the Best Director Award in the Indian Language Films section at the 26th Kolkata International Film Festival and has also been shown at the recently held Dhaka International Film Festival in January 2021. It is due to screen as part of the Indian Cinema Now section of the International Film Festival of Kerala this month and at the Imagine India International Film Festival, in Madrid, Spain in May, later this year.
In God On The Balcony, Khagen Das (Harish Khanna) is a middle-aged casual labour based in a village in Assam where the locals are forever threatened by the floods and the rains that take away with them, farms, homes and people in their wake. The other big threat is from the wild elephants that frequent the area, breaking and wrecking everything and everyone that come in the way. When Khagen and his teenaged daughter Kuvali (Parinandhi Jima Sultana) go to attend the Ras Mela in the village, elephants plunder his house and attack his wife, Numali (Pranami Bora), who lies severely injured. But the nearest hospital is several miles away and when they reach there seating Numali on the new bicycle bought for Kuvali to go to school, it is midnight and the hospital is closed with the attendant doctor not available and the ambulance driver informing that he will only come in the morning. So, an angry, bitter and desperate Khagen ties his wife’s now dead body to the bicycle and begins to walk back to the village to give her a decent burial. He walks the entire distance on bare feet, possibly as a mark of reverence to his deceased wife while the young Kuvali carrying her kid goat Matukan plods along, weeping quietly. Of course, the media pounce on this as a ‘hot story’, channels organize panel discussions around it and the local politician jumps on the bandwagon to make the issue his electoral bet.
The first half of the film moves between the present and the past. In the present, Khagen and his daughter wait for the ambulance driver to carry the injured body of Numali while the security guard sleeps leaning on a pillar of the hospital while the past unfolds the story of Khagen and his family, who are struggling to make both ends meet. At one point, the daughter asks her father, “We all live under the same sky. Then why aren’t we equal?” The father looks at her solemnly and later, comments – “People are worse than the wild elephants we live with.” Once Khagen ties his wife’s body to the bicycle to trek back to his village, the narrative becomes linear. This may appear confusing to begin with but once we get into grips with it, it offers a unique perspective of presenting a touching story on how human rights are structurally violated with impunity in marginalised villages and cities in India. The film closes on the father-daughter caught from behind as they move slowly into the distance. This cuts to the same rough road capturing a pregnant woman, groaning in pain, being pulled on a cart towards a hospital. The journey, in other words, goes on…
Harish Khanna fleshes out the character of Khagen Das with a real, flesh-and-blood mode, which perhaps few others could have done. Of course, he is helped along by the fact that he does not have a starry halo to impinge on the character’s image. The performance of Pranami Bora as his wife reflects just the right balance of a housewife and mother who tries her best to support her husband on the one hand and fulfill her daughter’s demand for a bicycle on the other. Porinandhi Jima Sultana as the daughter plays her part convincingly, never going overboard. The film is distinguished by long phases of silence and very little dialogue. This is what makes Harish’s performance so perfect.
The cinematography by Vishal Khatri vividly contrasts the brightly lit and flashily coloured frames of the Ras Mela, accompanied by traditional folk drama, songs and dances, with the natural light in the interiors of Khagen’s home, where Numali cooks in the light of an indigenous bottle topped with a lighted cotton wick. Khatri has effectively used ultra soft bronze, brown and sienna color palettes almost throughout the film that aids the film greatly. This invests the film with a natural touch without romanticizing the story or turning into a tear-jerker. There are some touching shots of Khagen wiping his tears under the guise of wiping his sweat and his caring touch when Kuvali falls sick and begins to throw up. The sound design by Jyoti Chetia is rich with ambient sound of the forests, frightened crows and the painful groans of the badly injured Numali as she lies on a bench outside the hospital. The editing does not jerk at any point and skilfully moves between different locations, times and moods smoothly and seamlessly. The music in this songless film is almost completely minimalist harping on a single thematic musical strokes that invests the film with a lyrical note of melancholy and sadness right through the journey the father-daughter make.
All in all, God On The Balcony is yet another welcome addition to the wonderful cinema that is coming out from North-East India, especially from Assam, with regularity over the last few years. And is deserving of all the accolades it is accumulating.
Assamese, Drama, Color