Tathagat (2020), currently streaming on MUBI, is the second outing of actor-director Manav Kaul following Hansa (2012). It narrates the tale of a monk (Harish Khanna) haunted till date by a jealous act he committed during his childhood, which inadvertently led to tragedy. Kaul forms the basis of his story by exploring the intricate nature of memory and its influences on the ways in which we perceive the world. However, an intriguing and philosophical premise gives way to an unsatisfying filmic experience that fails to come together coherently.
Tathagat begins with a prologue wherein the middle-aged monk, Baba, and his younger self, Suraj (Himanshu Bhandari), exchange conversations about how magic demands a lifetime to do its job. We then move on to the present where Baba is preparing for a puja when his disciple, Amar, (Ghanshyam Lalsa), informs him that his aunt (Savita Rani) has died. Baba leaves the puja midway and starts to aimlessly wander in the forest. He is flooded with a collage of childhood memories and through them, we get introduced to his family members.
Suraj’s father (Ashwat Bhatt), once a potter ushering hikers around the Himalayas, struggles to eke out a livelihood as a clown. He is also an alcoholic and follows a frivolous lifestyle due to which his wife (Sayani Gupta) refuses to let him stay with her. She single-handedly looks after Suraj. As Suraj grows up, his aunt refuses to bathe him any longer even though he keeps insisting on it. Meanwhile, Suraj’s neighbour, Lallu (Pritam Singh), constantly bullies him. Tired of being constantly harassed by Lallu, he reacts when one day he sees his aunt and Lallu together without thinking about the larger consequences of his action… Back in the present, Baba’s desire to renounce the world of spirituality and return home gets shattered. He then decides to go to a memorial to recover. Amar stubbornly announces that he will accompany his Master come what may. As both of them isolate themselves from the mortal world, an unfortunate event changes Baba’s entire perception of his existence…
While the elements of the story abound in spirituality and the philosophical, the film fails to bring them together convincingly . Kaul’s insights into the troubled psyche of Suraj/Baba are whimsical rather than poetic. Too many voice overs echoing the monk’s thoughts and philosophies make them appear on the surface and preachy. This only ends up highlighting the lack of a cinematic exploration of his mind and thinking. The writing is weak and the film falls short in its key moments like the pivotal sequence where Baba meets his brother. The storytelling is labored, making even the crisp 84-minute running time tedious. The idyllic and austere Himalayan village, where nature dominates and the pace of life is attractively unhurried, should have been the perfect setting for the meditative qualities inherent in Tathagat‘s narrative. Sadly, it fails to become a character within the film and does not have the major impact it could have had except perhaps in the last few shots of the snow-laden mountains. Even the brilliant use of the metaphor to seek forgiveness from God – of writing the ‘secret’ on a piece of paper and releasing it from the mountain tops of the Himalayas – fails to give the film that overall subliminal thrust.
Performance wise, Harish Khanna as the monk tries hard to infuse life into the role of a troubled soul but is unable to rise above the script. Ashwat Bhatt, Himanshu Bhandari, Sayani Gupta, Savita Rani and Ghanshyam Lalsa – all disappoint with weak performances that clearly indicate the lack of a strong directorial hand. This is surprising coming from Kaul, who is otherwise such an accomplished actor himself. Moreover, the dubbing of the actors appears highly stagey.
Technically, the cinematography of the film does not add any depth to the character of the film with some lackadaisical framings. The sound design of the film relies much too heavily merely on dialogues and the (overused) background score of the film. The editing pattern of the film is inconsistent with some random juxtapositions that don’t quite come off. The editor is unable to establish an overall rhythm and flow for the film, which suffers further due to the meandering nature of the screenplay.
Tathagat ends up as an inadequate cinematic experience with Kaul failing to execute the potential of his promising theme.