Sthalpuran/ Chronicles of Space (2020), Akshay Indikar

Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, 2021

May 20-27

Dighu is traveling to a town in Konkan area to his grandparents’ place with his sister Durga and his mother. It becomes apparent that his father has suddenly left the family and they must find a home and a life. He writes a diary of his state of mind, each entry a sentence, sparse, simple, but in words containing the depth and the confusion of an 8-year-old attempting to make sense of things.

The “chronicles” are the “stories” of the places and spaces of their transition. They are in a new place and so is Dighu’s mind. Their lives are beginning to take shape as the children go to school, the mother takes a new job, and grandparents provide warmth and security. Places of Dighu’s new life unfold in three realms; the interior of the grandparents’ house, the “public or institutional” spaces where he moves (the school, and his brief trip to Goa), and the nature around him, which he is immersing himself in, a sight unfamiliar in the city. 

The domestic spaces remain at a distance from the viewer. The camera maintains a distance from the characters and the objects. Characters often share the frame with darker walls, distant or partially visible figures in the background, and often lit with light from oil lamps or low-watt bulbs. It is a lower-middle class household in a village, but the family negotiates its issues with peace and tradition. Crises have practical solutions and solutions to do not have high ambitions. As they discuss the subsequent steps for Dighu’s mother, her father calmly offers support and advice. Dighu learns how to read the clock, while the camera slowly pans to his sister and mother sleeping in the next room. Compositions in domestic spaces are distinct in their lighting and framing. In this domestic setting, partial lighting suggests that figures as important as the setting, and the family life is not staged for an outsider.

As Dighu and Durga walk to school, he stops with curiosity to look at something. Behind him is the wide wall in “government-yellow,” that has withered many a Monsoons and negligence over the years. When Dighu goes to school, the classrooms are also visible in partial frames, except the other side reveals fading colors and rough surfaces on the walls. When the camera comes into the classroom, we are concerned with Dighu’s presence. The droning repetitions of his lessons match the dullness of the school architecture. It is an ordinary world, but a permanent one. Like the uniforms the pupils wear, they signify permanence, with little regard to emotions of the characters involved. Dighu says at one point, “the road to school is more interesting than the school.” His only memory of the school left behind is not exciting either, except that he still remembers it. Schools are drab and ordinary. The family trip to Goa brings a variety in Dighu’s experience. There, he is bewildered and out-of-place. Camera inhabits that energy.

The most beautiful are the sights in Dighu’s walks to school, and in nature. The Monsoon rains are generous in their embrace of the land and the greens. Jagadeesh Ravi’s camera enjoys the rain, relishing each frame with the fecundity of sight. The camera does not amplify; it simply rests back to open the lenses to the purity the landscape has to offer. A crab walks on rain-glistened rock, the leaves and the branches shimmer in the light, and the streams of water rush as if each has a clock inside them. Dighu dreams, imagines, and escapes in the gifts of light and movement. 

The film allows us to get a view of the spaces of Dighu’s mind against the materiality of spaces around him. These spaces are intriguing, complex, and poetic. As philosopher Gaston Bachelard reminds us, the spaces of a child’s mind and experience contain a “universe of emotions,” the depths of which are not easily accessible to us. This the kernel of Akshay Indikar’s film, familiar rendered brilliant in its meticulous architecture of image, sound, and movement. The “chronicles” of the spaces emerging from and occupying Dighu’s imagination make for the most fascinating aspect of the film. It is a memorably successful feature of director’s accomplishments. The world of Dighu’s mind is simultaneously magical and real: we see the flights of his mind, from the imagined figures that appear out of nowhere, to the images of the “world inverted” that run through his dream-scape. We see magic-real scenes as his body lifts as if to dissolve in the reality he is watching. The breadth and the scope of this world, rich, complex, and left expressed but not “chronicled” become some of the richest aspects of this already—rich film.

The real is the world of senses. Dighu and Durga walk through rainy rice fields to school. Dighu stares the dark skies. The sea-waves create a thinking space for his mind. But it is also a “sensing world,” to which Dighu tunes in. A spider in the web, some creature near the building, which he invites Durga to see, and the leaves waving and shivering the rain. This is a world for Dighu to escape into but it also shapes his mind better than the rituals of school-learning. The scenes of his imagination blend into the moments of his experience. Dighu’s life and mind are shaped by all the places and the spaces.    

In rendering the workings of an inner mind of a child on the screen, without the gushing of words, letting the images shape our understanding, Indikar taps into the potential of cinema to create its own economy of images. The film is about places we inhabit and the spaces we occupy in our minds, an idea captured so aptly in the Sanskrit root of the Marathi title of the film, “sthal.” The second part of the title, “puran,” suggests the plurality of tales. The word is quite different from what we use for a single story. Like Dighu, we can move from one place to another, while our minds generate their own spaces.

The film is often called “minimalist.” Perhaps it is, if you think of how it sheds the verbiage, the dramatic detritus, and the emotive excesses of cinema, particularly Indian popular cinema. But it is not minimalist in its investment in the power of images and sounds. Each entry in Dighu’s diary notes passing of a day, but it brings forth so much as time frees itself from the mundane movement and instills spirits in the objects and life into images. In one of the entries in his diary, Dighu notes, “nothing” (nothing happened that day). What could be more eloquent for cinema to say that! What “happens” in cinema is a contrivance of speech, blabber, and artificial movement. What viewers wants to find in cinema are a series of “happenings.” But when “nothing” happens, a lot happens, and cinema is meant to turn our attention to it. In another entry, Dighu says, “the road to the school is more beautiful than the school itself.” There! This is what cinema can do. It is not to bring us a world of closure but to take us on a journey.

Watching this film, I thought of John Cage. Sure, he was a minimalist, but he produced an energy of creativity in artists that some of the most erudite and creative ones couldn’t. For Cage, the gift was to imagine, not to produce. For him, the way to engage with the world was to immerse in it. One simply opens eyes and sees more than what the sight can offer. One hears beyond what is audible. Cinema can do that too, potently and imaginatively. To get there, it has to move into that space.

Indikar’s film does not indulge itself in the narrative style of social realism. There isn’t an effort here to paint an image of poverty or mental anguish. It does not bring any valence of moral or social value on characters or events. The film does not have a burden of placing itself in the lexicon or social realist films of the past. Flexing cinema’s potential in capturing the minutiae of existence in a child’s mind, the multiple spaces he inhabits, it carves out a space that is sorely missing in Indian cinema. For its multiple accomplishments, it is an extraordinary work.

Akshay Indikar’s Sthalpuran (Chronicle of Space) (2020) is the closing night film of IFFLA
 
Followed by a Q&A session, moderated by Anurag Kashyap
 
The film will be screened online May 20-27. 

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