Film: "Antardwand"; Cast: Raj Singh Chaudhary, Swati Sen, Vinay Pathak, Akhilendra Mishra, Himanshi; Writer-Director: Sushil Rajpal; Rating: ** ½
Set in rural Bihar where nothing works except the law of the lawless, "Antardwand" takes the firm and gripping route to expose a hinterland-headline - the kidnapping of marriageable boys by desperate fathers of wannabe brides.
This was a prevalent malpractice in Bihar until some years ago. Not so much any more.
Debutant director Sushil Rajpal's film works more for its deeper resonances than just the surface sincerity. It is not so much the sensational value of the theme ('dulha uth gaya') that makes "Antardwand" watchable as the treatment of the layers of socio-political irregularities and caste aberrations that generate a society of anarchy where kidnapping an aspiring groom is serious business.
The narrative is punctuated with bouts of savage humour. When the Delhi University civil service candidate Raghuveer (Raj Singh Choudhary) with a pregnant girlfriend (Himanshi), is kidnapped just yards away from his parents' home in rural Bihar, his confoundedness, and rage at the bizarre confinement is expressed in bouts and spasms of indignance.
The director knows the milieu well. He doesn't waste time exploring rural Bihar just because he has chosen to film his story on location.
The narrative never loses its momentum. Rather than opt for a dry docu-drama tone, director Sushil Rajpal has chosen to format the film as a thriller. The pace from the moment of Raghuveer's kidnapping to his escape is largely relentless.
The second-half of the plot gets more introspective as it becomes the story of the humiliated bride (newcomer Swati Sen, well cast) who finds herself with a man who has been forced to marry her. The rage of confinement and the anguish of rejection ooze out of the tense frames.
Sequences in the couple's bedroom with a gigantic tell-tale double-bed at its centre, capture the ironical nullity of a marriage based on bullying tactics. There is an element of naïve desperation in the couple's shared space.
The writing is hard-hitting but relentless, supple and slender. There is ample room for innuendoes in the dialogues and situations.
"Antardwand" avoids the easy road to realism. The ambience does not depend on how the actors pitch the accent in the spoken word or their body language. Though these are authentic, it's the deeper malaise of a society buried neck-deep in prejudices and superstition that the director focuses on.
The camera work by Malay Ray is exploratory but non-judgemental. Scenes of characters moving in and out of dark old-fashioned interiors are shot without wallowing in symbolism.
The performances are thoughtful. Akhilendra Mishra and Vinay Pathak pitch into the ambience of rousing realism as the father of the bride and the kidnapped groom, respectively. Raj Singh as the precious groom last seen in Anurag Kashyap's "Gulaal" again reveals an admirable ability to blend into the bleeding fabric of mofussil mayhem.
The film is suffused with sincerely sketched characters. Jaya Bhattacharya as the bride's far-from-persecuted bhabhi (sister-in-law) and for that matter the unknown actor Dadhi Raj Paney who plays Akhilendra Mishra's faithful servant, bring a kind of fringe fertility into the storytelling.
The finale is self indulgent in its idealism. A society so breached by gender and caste biases cannot be lit up by a sudden beam of optimistic light.
But no harm in trying.
"Antardwand" is a commendable attempt to examine the underbelly of rural Bihar. It doesn't purport to shake up the status quo. The film only wants to remind us that we need to heal our collective social conscience before curing the discrepancies that feed into our dream of emerging from the darkness into the light.