In a remote village, far away from Delhi, Kamla fails to hear back from her husband for five months He is in the city for work, toiling on the constructions sites that have become the hallmark of capital’s expansion. When his cell phone is quiet for some time and when the village elders ask for more patience, she sets out to find her husband on her own. Taking her 5-year old daughter Manya and a lamb along for the long journey, she is a lone woman on a long trek in an unknown territory. She meets Nawazuddin, an army deserter. They are trapped together in the only available option of a trip to the city, they travel together. He is a drifter and she is focused on a spot in the dark.
This is a road movie. But in Geethu Mohandas’s debut feature, it is about class, divide between the city and the remote areas, between the profits of capital’s expansion and the cold, brute realities of manual labor, between the deeper suspicions among genders that are trapped in cultural values. It is an unwitting treatise on landscapes, its people and the untapped capacities of the human face in the image of cinema.
Mohandas sets this plain and simple narrative against the remote areas of Himachal Pradesh, with its rough terrains, snow-laced villages and mountains, crawling pace of life that treads through its buses, mules and quiet, silently gritty people. Their travel goes through the mountain areas toward the city, its cold landscapes, frigid train stations, crammed streets and street markets and also its matchbox spaces that provide lodging to desperate visitors. As in any road movie, the space speaks on its own terms. It is as much as backbone of a narrative as the characters that are transformed in it. Liar’s Dice maps this space with committed focus on the intricacies of contradictions, between a life that is left behind and the hopelessness of what is promised.
Nawazuddin and Kamla are both young. The context of their journey does not allow for romantic interludes. Their culture permits even less. The distrust among them writes their characters– him a stranger with rash manners and dubious airs and her, a vulnerable woman given less to trust than to suspicion of a stranger on the road. Telling the truth comes secondary to them, both impulses drawn from a deep reservoir of desire to survive. Nawazuddin is a hustler, for he must be, as he sets up his game of dice cups anywhere, from a train compartment to a busy street. Kamla is new to this game of survival. A man’s presence is a must for her on a journey that is not used to seeing single women in unfamiliar spaces. She brings a little stash of saved money and Nawazuddin breaks out his dice cups when he needs a little dough.
Mohandas constructs their relationship in layers of cultural permissibility and situational necessity. Their human warmth is hidden inside the tough shells of distrust, suspicion and the fear of the unknown on a road yet to be travelled. At times, the narrative appears to belong completely to Kamla. As the more vulnerable of the two, with a young child a lamb as both responsibilities and emotional cushions, she is careful, fearful but persistent. She begins the journey wearing the pristine beauty of the landscape on her face, only to let it withered away with the brute realities of the conditions away from the village. She is quiet most of the time, only to immerse her face into the cinematic frame, allowing all other elements to complement its depths. Her face speaks of the depth, never letting go of the control of its capabilities. This role is a demonstration of what philosopher Emmanuel Levinas thought of when he invested in the human face all the potential of discovering the other, placing the primal relationships in the encounter with the face of the other. She is restrained but she reads. She absorbs but she expresses. This role is an exercise of acting potency of Gitanjali Thapa, who at this point, has garnered top acting awards at many festivals including here at the NYIFF. It is a masterwork of a performance.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui is a prodigious talent. If for Thapa, it is her face that becomes the space on which the narrative writes its destiny, for Siddiqui, it is his body. Limp and weary after an injury and harsh travel, he is willing to help but on his own terms. He transforms himself every time he sets up his dice cups, bristling with life as if he is the instrument and the spectators, mere pawns, the dice that he plays with. Confident but kind, he expresses as he withholds. When he stumbles, he learns quickly. With Thapa next to him, we witness a rare duel of memorable performances.
For having made all this possible in her first feature, Mohandas deserves accolades. It is an ordinary story, aided by strong performances. But truly, this film is a rare display of auteur’s control over the medium. The film is paced evenly, with incredibly calculated tempo. The pitch is never high, but in its subdued quality, it is at its most eloquent. She uses the variations in the landscape to imbue more spirit into the narrative. Rajeev Ravi’s cinematography is a major asset to the directorial vision of painting deeper layers of meaning in the reality of images.
The film moves toward the resolution of finding Kamla’s husband. The underlying connotation in her husband’s failure to stay in touch with her is ominous. Rapidly expanding suburbs of Delhi have seen the construction boom in recent years/decades. These monuments of capital draw massive amount of labor from neighboring areas, including the traditionally isolated regions of the country. Kamla’s pain in finding her missing husband is also a pain of that loss of human labor to the machine of expansion. These men build the victory columns of expansion but only on the abandon of their families, the breakdown of their lives and threat to their plight for years to come. The film is rightly dedicated to these workers. Each moment is written in silent desperation of the people, represented here by a drifty deserter and an injured wife and a mother.
The film won top prize at NYIFF. Propelled into production by Hubert Bals fund, it is an exemplary achievement for new Indian cinema. Among all the good things about this film, the greatest has to be this—it is a film that will bring “foreign” audiences into a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar. Familiar because it is a road movie. Unfamiliar because it is layered in cultural specificities that are complex. If the promise of world cinema has to come true, and that has to be the final mission of all films, then it must bring the “unfamiliar” to audiences. That is, audiences have a hunger now to seek films that open up other worlds. Geethu Mohandas’s Liar’s Dice (2014) makes that possible, more effectively than other films. I cannot say it more subtly, it is a rare achievement for Indian cinema!