Basically, the story of late director Bappaditya Bandopadhyay’s Sohra Bridge – about a daughter coming from Kolkata looking for her father who never went back, sounds terribly cliché. But it is in the telling of the story that makes the film an out-of-the-box piece of work with out-of-the-box characters placed in the vastness of a hilly place dotted with water bodies, rocks and punctuated with trees along a picturesque scenario where the colour of the sky changes every other minute and people are practically dwarfed against the beauty of the landscape. Bandopadhyay has used four languages and a local dialect for the dialogues in the film – English, Bengali, Hindi, Assamese and Khasi.
Sohra – the village in Cherrapunji district of Meghalaya, the wettest place in the world, offers a deceptively beautiful appearance because underneath the beauty lies the extremist ideology of an insurgency movement operative in the area with the sole aim of eliminating illegal immigrants in any which way they can through violent means. Ria (Niharika Singh) enters the misty scenario pictured in silhouette against a dusky skyscape, dragging a strolley along, halting a taxi and asking to be taken to Sohra to a lodge that will not ask for identification papers. She arrives at the lodge paying extra money for not having papers and proceeds to the only pub to have a drink. She does not seem to be in any hurry looking for her father Sandip Chatterjee (Barun Chanda) but seems content soaking in the beauty and the ambience of the place with the idea that the meeting will happen at some point. It does. And here is where Bappaditya scores by fusing two time zones, the present with Ria at the pub, Ria having sex with the gigolo, Ria listening to a scary folk lore from the friendly cabbie and meetings of Ria with her father that happen only in Ria’s imagination as the screenplay offers glimpses into what really happened that strangely coincides with Ria’s fantasies.
It is a beautiful fusion between the past and the present that is a projection of Ria’s mind. Ria flits and floats between the real and the surreal as she picks up facts about her father from the woman who took care of him and from Indira, her sophisticated, educated daughter who lives in another place in the same village. The woman who took care of her father informs her of her active participation as a field worker in the People’s Liberation Army but how she was reduced of all her strength by Ria’s father and became an ordinary, middle-class woman. At one point, she even writes and mails a postcard addressed to her father in Kolkata.
She carries a book her father wrote – Kena Bechar Shohor (The city of buying and selling) she wishes him to sign for her when they meet. He does sign a copy but when she comes back to her lodge and opens the book, there is a wistful smile on her face as she stares at the page of the book without the signature. His female companion talks about him in the past tense and we learn that Ria’s father who never went back to Kolkata is dead, killed by the very insurgents who had commissioned him to write articles and stories perpetuating their ideology. He did it up to a point and then discovered, as he tells Ria, that dictatorship and creative writing can never go together. The father-daughter interactions are filled with ideological questions raised by the father while the daughter sometimes differs but mostly, smiles quietly. The leader of the insurgent group decides to gun him down.
Ria spends her time wandering aimlessly across the village, lonely because the village is almost devoid of people except those who congregate at the pub when she meets Ashish, a handsome gigolo who she often buys services from for a handsome price. She is as much an out-of-the-box character as is her father, Ashish and even the young military man in uniform who is intrigued by her presence and her long stay in the village.
She is hardly seen without a cigarette in her hand and is fond of her drink too. Her past is as dark as is her present. When she tells Indira that she had met the student leader Hemen Saikia from these parts in jail, one might speculate that perhaps, she has a dark past underwritten by her unfriendliness and her reluctance to reveal her identification documents. She does not have a cell phone and makes calls from the calling booth. Yet, one can see that she is flush with money, pulling out currency notes like a magician pulling off long ribbons of paper from his magic hat. But one can only speculate because the story is focussed on her search for her father to ask him why he left her and her mother and never came back.
Sohra Bridge is as much a cinematographer’s film as it is the director’s and the music director’s. Rana Dasgupta has a field day capturing the gloriously changing colours of the sky, often capturing the people in silhouette, dwarfed by the beauty of Nature. In some scenes, the blackness of the night is pierced suddenly by the flashing headlights of an approaching land rover or taxi through the serpentine roads, the sounds of its wheels dotting the silence of the evening. Every frame shot outdoors is choreographed like a painting. Gaurav Chatterjee’s music is muted and low-key where he has used both blow and string instruments of the local people. One Baul number is used partly as a theme song in the second half of the film while two lovely songs, one in Khasi language, defines the only form of entertainment in the pub.
Bandopadhyay has used silence beautifully too in certain places, For example, when the camera shows in long shots, the illegal immigrant family from Syllhet in Bangladesh, having crossed the border and trying to get papers to legalize their entry, as they run first to the rocky alcove to take shelter and then clamber down to get on the approaching trekker, the soundtrack is totally silent. Ashish, the gigolo, tells Ria that he wants to go away from this place. But later, when Ria hands him a slip of paper asking him to contact the person on the phone number written on the slip, he quietly takes it and casts it in the fire in front. He knows he is trapped and there is no going away for him.
Barun Chanda gives a restrained performance and the others, such as Pratik Sen, Rita Bora, Paul Phukon and the Khasi actor Merlin Jude Mukhim are natural performers but the film begins and ends with Ria. Sadly, Niharika Singh is a disaster from beginning to end. Her lines are mostly in English because she does not know a word of Bengali and the few Bengali words she utters are mispronounced. Bandopadhyay perhaps realized her failure to perform and so, we see her more often in long shots and in mid-shots. The mid-close-ups too, show her either in profile or with her hair hiding part of her face because her face remains absolutely expressionless when caught in a few close-ups. She probably did not know what was happening, why and what was being said because her face in close-up is absolutely blank. Another strategy Bandopadhyay used as an intelligent director is to make her a chain smoker so that her hands remain busy and her face remains partially hidden. The lines from Albanian poet Ismail Kadare therefore, fall flat when they are focussed on Ria – “The memory of you dies in me day by day/ Now, I am looking everywhere for a place to drop you.” Bandopadhyay should have dropped Niharika from the cast instead!
English, Hindi, Assamese, Bengali, Khasi, Drama, Color