I’m very pleased to announce that my second book, Nainsukh, the Film, has been published by the Museum Rietberg Zürich, under its Artibus Asiae imprint, marking its first ever film-related publication. The book is a monographic exploration of Nainsukh (2010), a semi-biographical film on the eponymous eighteenth-century miniature painter, produced by Eberhard Fischer and directed by Amit Dutta.

Partly an art-historical survey of the development of Pahari painting in Northern India and partly a stylistic, thematic and film-historical investigation into Nainsukh, this compact volume is exquisitely designed and illustrated with hundreds of gorgeous paintings, film stills and photographs from the production. It is a companion piece of sorts to my first book, Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta (2021, Lightcube). Why don’t you pick up both?!



Nainsukh of Guler was an eighteenth-century miniature painter from the hills of Northern India. With his patron, the prince Balwant Singh of Jasrota, this master artist created some of the most refined, delicate works of Indian painting, which seem to have been, in the words of art historian B.N. Goswamy, not painted as much as breathed upon paper.

In 2010, Swiss art historian Eberhard Fischer produced a film titled Nainsukh, an experimental biopic based on Goswamy’s writings on the Guler master. Directed by Amit Dutta, this art-historically rigorous, formally playful screen biography brought the painter’s works to life, offering vivid reimaginations of the circumstances of their making.

Nainsukh, the Film: Still Lives, Moving Images delves into this enchanting, singular work located at the confluence of art and film history. With detailed contextual information, the book accompanies the reader through the world of Nainsukh, illuminating the themes, style and genealogy of one of the most sublime cinematic creations of the twenty-first century.



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My ballot for the 2022 Sight and Sound critics’ poll for the greatest films of all time:

La Jetée (1962, Chris Marker)
Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-98, Jean-Luc Godard)
The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912, Ladislaw Starewicz)
Sátántangó (1994, Béla Tarr)
The Gold Rush (1925, Charles Chaplin)
To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch)
The Up! Series (1964-ongoing, Michael Apted, Paul Almond)
The Crowd (1928, King Vidor)
Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927, Walther Ruttmann)
Homework (1989, Abbas Kiarostami)

[Part of Curator’s Corner, a section dedicated to showcasing work of emerging and marginal filmmakers. See here for details.]

Shishir Jha is a filmmaker from Darbhanga, Bihar, who lives and works in Mumbai. An alumnus of the National Institute of Design, Shishir began making short films to teach himself particular aspects of moviemaking while also holding a job in the advertising industry. He has recently made his debut feature Dharti Latar Re Horo (Tortoise Under the Earth, 2022), a meditative docu-fiction set in an adivasi region of Central India plagued by the ecological repercussions of unchecked mining. While Tortoise Under the Earth is still seeking distribution, viewers can get a good sense of Shishir’s work from two of his short films, The East Wind (2016) and Te Amo (2016), both presented below along with a classroom project, Goodbye and Other Stories (2018).

A monodrama set in a mountainous stretch of Maharashtra, The East Wind centres on an unnamed middle-aged man seemingly mourning the disappearance of his wife. The film, however, only hints at this premise, refusing to spell it out except as visual clues: photographs of the man and his now-absent family, a dream-like tracking shot suggesting a journey away from the protagonist, who gazes yearningly at the photos or off-screen. Images of the man cooking his sorry meal or fetching water from across the valley, and of clothes left unattended to, signal a breach in the routine without putting too strong an emphasis on it. The wind blows, ushering in the first rains. Life goes on.

Ostensibly influenced by Béla Tarr, The East Wind demonstrates Shishir’s taste for elliptical, contemplative storytelling that privileges mood, atmosphere and landscape over character development or narrative detailing. The film doesn’t narrate a story as much as dwell on a state of mind — a kind of static portraiture that characterizes the filmmaker’s other work as well. Even so, it helps that he has a professional actor in Robin Das, whose weather-beaten face and downcast body become the primary expressive vehicle of the film. Shishir has subsequently worked predominantly with non-professionals, which certainly stretches their capabilities even as the films gain in documentary authenticity.

In 2016, Shishir participated in a workshop by Abbas Kiarostami at the EICTV film school in Cuba. Scouting neighbouring villages with an interpreter for possible subjects for a short film, he found an elderly couple living on the ground floor of a housing complex in Pueblo Textil, Bauta. On Kiarostami’s advice, he spent time getting to know them, observing their environment and shooting them in their routine while proposing to them small situations to improvise on. “I don’t speak Spanish, and I developed something intuitively based on my impression of their interactions,” says Shishir.

The result was the film Te Amo, a charming picture of old-age togetherness, routine pleasures and the banality of a contended life, unfolding on a lazy summer afternoon. Arcadio and Nelsa, the couple, have obvious charisma and their endearing chattiness and enthusiastic participation draw Te Amo far away from the laconism of The East Wind. “I discovered the power of language to express emotions for the first time,” says the filmmaker. “I realized that this was magic.” The film was well-received at the workshop and garnered Kiarostami’s appreciation. “The experience gave me confidence that I can make a film anywhere,” adds the filmmaker.

Speaking of his first feature film, Shishir notes that Tortoise Under the Earth was an extension of Te Amo: “With the same approach, I wanted to tell a longer story.” At the time, he was reading Paul Olaf Bodding’s work on Santhali folklore and Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s short story collection The Adivasi Will Not Dance (2015). Inspired equally by the play of myth and nature in the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Shishir set out to the district of East Singhbhum in Jharkhand, exploring the area with the help of the activist Jeetrai Hansda. “I realised that Bodding’s Santhal is far away from today’s Santhals,” he says in an interview, ”there are new problems, new possibilities and new issues.” Instead of forcing his experience into a pre-determined narrative framework, Shishir spent his months simply gathering images and sounds from the region.

It wasn’t until he came across Jagarnath and Mugli Baskey that he found his human-interest story. A middle-aged couple who have lost their daughter to unstated causes, Jagarnath and Mugli live by themselves in a spacious house in the village. Like in Te Amo, Shishir recreated their everyday interactions as fiction, partly conceived by the protagonists themselves, giving us a picture of a loving couple living in harmony with the nature around them. Mugli speaks to flowers and sings songs of lament; Jagarnath talks to a bird and buys bangles for his wife. Woven through these domestic scenes are images from an annual festival in which Jagarnath plays percussions and a village fair where the couple have themselves photographed at a makeshift studio.

This soft, rarefied drama of rural idyll is, however, interrupted by environmental threat. We learn that the region has been poisoned by rapacious Uranium mining, the footprint of which hasn’t ceased to expand. True to the understated nature of Tortoise, this invasion first appears as noise — a distant thud of the machines — before we see its material consequences in the form of water poisoning and forced eviction. Jagarnath tries to sensitize the youth of the area, who seem playful and somewhat indifferent to their collective plight, showing little desire for action. Jagarnath is, on the other hand, determined that he will not leave his home. In a beautiful night-time sequence, he stares straight at the headlights of an ominous off-screen vehicle — heels dug into the ground, fists clenched — offering an uplifting note of defiance.

Tortoise Under the Earth is above all a humanist portrait of Jagarnath and Mugli. Shishir does not regard his film as a work of activism. The politics of Uranium mining, says the filmmaker, is not something that he was expressly seeking to address. But having spent time with the couple as their guest, it was something he couldn’t avoid, so much was it a part of their identity and existence. In that respect, Tortoise serves to register that, for people like Jagarnath and Mugli, the business of living is inextricable from their struggles against erasure.



Shishir Jha is a Mumbai-based filmmaker born in Bihar, India in 1988. He graduated from the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, with a bachelor’s degree in Film & Video Communication Design. He received a Diploma in Filmmaking at the workshop of the late Abbas Kiarostami at EICTV (Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV) in Cuba in 2016. He has made several short films, and Tortoise Under the Earth is his first feature film.


rumrainroad[at]gmail[dot]com | Instagram | Twitter


  • Meghna, 2009, 2 min., digital
  • Guddi, 2011, 5 min., digital
  • The East Wind, 2015, 15 min., digital
  • Segment in Shuruaat Ka Interval, 2014, 5 min., digital
  • Te amo, 2016, 18 min., digital
  • Goodbye & Other Stories, 2018, 18 min., digital
  • Dharti Latar Re Horo (Tortoise Under the Earth), 2022, 97 min., digital


The East Wind (2015)

Te amo (2016)

Goodbye & Other Stories (2018), password: humara123


[Part of Curator’s Corner, a section dedicated to showcasing work of emerging and marginal filmmakers. See here for details.]

Formally trained in cinematography, 28-year-old Agrima (aka Ajrul) is an independent filmmaker from Karnal, Haryana, in Northern India. Besides smaller exercise films, Agrima has made two shorts so far — 2019’s Jee Ka Janjaal: The Prominence of the Unseen and 2021’s Cocrunda 0.5mg (TV iv OTT) — both of which seem to me to be concentrated explorations of feelings of disgust and repulsion; the bibhatsa rasa as Indian aesthetic theory has it. They are both highly subjective works reflecting psychological states dominated by these sentiments. Disorder, decrepit rooms, dead and decaying animals, leftover food, bodily emanations, diseases, caustic colours, high-strung sound effects are some of the prominent elements of the films.

Agrima recalls having watched Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) and Black Cat, White Cat (1998) as a child. “I remember I was really fascinated by how deeply chaotic it was,” she adds. Viewing theatrical and film adaptations of Ghashiram Kotwal and Oedipus Rex one after the other while a student of English literature in New Delhi initiated her into a more formal understanding of the two mediums. Further influences came in the form of John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997), Pankaj Advani’s Urf Professor (2001) and, most importantly, Sion Sono’s Love Exposure (2008).

The seven-minute Jee Ka Janjaal was a direction assignment at film school. “I was still inexperienced to instruct a crew,” says Agrima. “So I ended up doing almost everything myself.” The film begins like a parody of true-crime TV shows, with the camera hovering over a disorderly, nearly unlivable hostel room – a veritable compendium of aforesaid elements. The protagonist (Snigdha) is seated deflated on the floor, surrounded by lizards, a lit cigarette dangling from her mouth. She is sweaty, her breath short and rapid, like that of a reptile. Shortly after, a mute “lizard man” (Varshney) creeps over her on a couch, running his hands under her clothes, causing her to throw up. Unable to confront him, she watches the man defile a doll and suddenly finds herself afflicted with mysterious skin lesions. Her trip to the hospital, however, proves even more traumatic.

Jee Ka Janjaal is ostensibly a personal work born of a sense of vulnerability. “At film school, I was for the longest time feeling isolated,” notes Agrima. “I also had some strife with how things were going on at the school. So I isolated myself. After living alone for a long time with just lizards in my room, I somehow came up with this afternoon reverie of a girl who was thinking of disgust in terms of body fluids, men, sexual activity and all of those things.” A sense of loathing pervades Jee Ka Janjaal, but it is primarily located in male bodies—the lizard man, the doctor’s bobbing Adam’s apple, the compounder’s unusual features—which gives a pointedly sexual dimension to the protagonist’s revulsion.

Cocrunda, in that regard, exercises greater control over its material, sublimating the feeling of repulsion in bodily humour. The threat of contamination is generalized, scattered across characters in this film, which features two oddball schoolteachers and their preteen vlogger daughter named Ozu (G. Maa Hei). In fact, this home-movie turned psychedelic-comedy opens with an exogenous menace. After Romanchitt (V. Armaan), the dubious newspaper guy, gives brash, unsolicited feedback on Ozu’s recent video, we see him lick the day’s edition and toss it into Ozu’s home. This original, biological and psychological invasion of the household gives rise to a series of others: a cockroach that slithers up the kitchen table, the pills that Mother keeps swallowing, the marundas, or sweet rice balls, that Father chomps down despite his diabetes and finally the TV news that suffuses the air with manufactured emergencies.

As her parents go through their routine in a drug-fuelled haze, Ozu films them with her phone camera, turning her life into the film we are watching. Ozu herself is on medication for her mood swings, which may partly explain the distorted nature of the events we see in the film, shot from up close in a warped perspective. A standoff eventually ensues between the three family members, each blackmailing the other with withdrawal of their preferred poison. “Everybody in the film is my family, except for the little girl,” says Agrima. “This is the second time I’ve shot this film. I shot the first version with a niece of mine. She abandoned the film after three days because of the cockroaches. So I had to audition for the role of the girl.”

Queasy-making and possibly anxiety-inducing, Cocrunda obliquely taps into the amorphous dread of life under lockdown in its evocation of different kinds of contamination: viral infection, food poisoning, drug overdose, invasive surgery, media manipulation and the danger of a young girl ‘exposing’ herself to the world through her videos. Instead of locating this dread in particular objects and people, Cocrunda displaces it from one tactile image to the next, thanks to an unnerving chain of subconscious associations: a dead rat, Romanchitt licking the newspaper, Father turning the pages of the said newspaper by licking his fingers; Mother using a pest repellent to protect Ozu, who crushes her tablets to make them look like the pest repellent, which in turn comes to look like cocaine; Father eating marundas, an organ extraction that resembles pest control, Father eating parathas and so on. Given that several of these images involve oral ingestion of some kind, Cocrunda has the power to induce a visceral response in the viewer. Judge for yourself!



Agrima, 28, is an independent short film director, a trained cinematographer and a mixed-media visual artist from Karnal, Haryana. She has done her Masters of English Literature course from Miranda House, Delhi University, and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Film and Digital Cinematography from Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata. Having fashioned her sensibilities through a diverse range of media, her approach to filmmaking is utterly interdisciplinary. Her formal preoccupations with language, literature and cinema, her spiritual connections to what is considered ‘trash’ for most archives and her phenomeno-political understanding of the world are important to her filmmaking.


agrima1445[at]gmail[dot]com | Instagram


  • (it)Selfie, 2018, 4 min., digital
  • Tumi Keno Chole Gele Debanjan, 2018, 2 min., digital
  • Jee ka Janjaal: The Prominence of the Unseen, 2019, 7 min., digital
  • Cocrunda 0.5mg (TV iv OTT), 2021, 10 min., digital
  • Chronicles of Kanchan and Yunga, 2022, 2:06 min., film


Cocrunda 0.5mg (TV iv OTT) (2021)

Jee ka Janjaal: The Prominence of the Unseen (2019)

Filipino auteur Lav Diaz’s reputation as the maker of extremely long, austere films in black-and-white may have unfortunately clouded the degree to which his work remains intellectually and emotionally accessible. While it is true that Diaz privileges a detached, master-shot aesthetic, with little camera movement and musical score, he remains a filmmaker firmly committed to clear narrative lines and character motivations. Despite his unmistakable personal style, his films consistently grapple with established film genres, freely adapting conventions from crime movies, melodramas, sci-fi, political thrillers and even musicals.

Diaz’s latest opus When the Waves Are Gone (Kapag Wala Nang Mga Alon), which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year, borrows equally from film noir and the Western, recounting the fated encounter of two violent men with a score to settle. Wracked with guilt over his involvement in the government’s murderous anti-drug campaign, top cop Hermes Papauran (John Lloyd Cruz, in his fifth feature with Diaz), begins to lose grip on his well-being and family life. His body develops severe psoriasis, prompting him to head for the salubrious coastal clime of his native village. In Hermes’ autoimmune disorder, Diaz finds an apt metaphor for a system determined to attack the very thing it is supposed to protect. Yet it is an unnerving, puritanical association that views physical illness as the offshoot of moral rot.

Released from prison, meanwhile, ex-sergeant Supremo Macabantay (Diaz’s regular collaborator Ronnie Lazaro) sets out to hunt down Hermes, who was once his protégé at the police academy and who had him arrested for corruption. As is often the case in Diaz’s films, this antagonist proves the more interesting character. A political assassin who is also an evangelist, Supremo commands the best passages of the film, such as the darkly humorous episodes where he coerces a boatman to jump overboard for baptism or when he brings a young sex worker to his hotel room, only to have her kneel and pray.

For the most part, Waves interweaves their stories, with Hermes and Supremo biding their time at their respective hideouts before their eventual high noon, which arrives in the shape of a ritual showdown by the sea. Alternating between towns and villages, indoors and outdoors, the film combines significant narrative ellipses with expansive slabs of real-time action, all helping impart a dynamic rhythm to the proceedings.

Waves is of a piece with Diaz’s permanent examination of his country’s embattled moral conscience, but the address is more direct than ever, the tone more despondent. The result is a passionate (if somewhat melodramatic) philippic against a nation that seems doomed to cycles of enslavement and oppression.


[First published in Sight&Sound]

Premiering at the 45th Cinéma du Réel in Paris, Maxime Martinot’s short essay The Film You Are About to See (Le Film Que Vous Allez Voir) offers a brilliant investigation into the ways in which cinema exhibition and spectatorship are mediated by paratexts within and outside the films. Repurposing a range of verbal material intended to set context for viewing — disclaimers, introductory warnings, fourth-wall breaking intertitles, notices from theatre management — the film examines the fraught, slippery nature of the relationship between text and image in cinema. In doing so, it also throws light on contemporary institutional outlook towards problematic works from film history.

The texts that Martinot gathers greatly vary in their tone, style and function. A number of them are pre-emptive disclaimers about the films not being representative of the real world (“merely an ancient fable”), forestalling perceived slight to such institutions as the police, the Red Cross and the Catholic church. A few extend the language of publicity, hard-selling the provocations of the film or preparing the audience for the experience to follow (“not a detective genre movie”). Yet others instruct the projectionist to keep an eye out for spectators pirating the film, while one intertitle registers a feeble protest against the censors: “In its original version, the film ended here, but the censorship demanded an optimistic ending as you are about to see.”

Systematically interspersed with these title cards are thirty-two excerpts from across the history of moving images, from Jules Janssen’s Passage de Vénus (1874) to Angus MacLane’s Lightyear (2022). Arranged more or less in chronology, these images often have a dialectical relationship to the intertitles, which, for their part, are presented in a reverse-chronological order, culminating in slides preceding magic lantern shows in the seventeenth century. This historical regression of the title cards goes not only against their anticipatory function and forward thrust within their respective films, but also against the increasingly slick, sophisticated images on display.

The Film You Are About to See cogently demonstrates the extent to which such title cards serve to fix the meaning and affect of the images, and to counter, as Roland Barthes put it, “the terror of uncertain signs.” Taken together, these paratexts attempt to tame the image and protect the audience, cautioning them about the kinds of violence that the images could subject them to: nausea, dizziness, motion sickness, temptation to vice, even moral outrage. One intertitle reproduces a notice that a theatre in Oklahoma had put up to alert the viewers of Lightyear about “scenes of gender ideology,” assuring them that a same-sex kiss will be fast-forwarded as soon as it appears on screen.

In this regard, the counter-chronological arrangement of intertitles and filmic excerpts also evokes regressing cultural attitudes to potentially disturbing films, the atavistic fear of the power of images. The disclaimers we see in the film have a striking resemblance to modern-day trigger warnings that seek to shield viewers from presumed psychic assaults. However, in its savvy assembly of ambiguous movie clips, Martinot’s film suggests that this is an ultimately futile enterprise, for images will always find a way to escape domestication and remain polysemous in the face of texts that seek to pin them down. In this and its fixation on the perverse detail, The Film You Are About to See comes across as a quintessential work about cinephilia, that illicit passion for smuggling personal significance into curated, tamed images.

“Don’t use your powers to feed your perversions,” police officer Suresh Menon (Gautam V. Menon) tells off his subordinate Raghavendar (Chetan), who has stripped his detainees in an effort to extract vital information. It’s probably too telling a comment, for Viduthalai Part 1 (“Freedom”) offers director Vetrimaaran one more occasion to anthologize his fantasies of sadistic, retributive and occasionally poetic violence. Set in the 1980s, the film follows the efforts of the police in eradicating armed rebellion in a mineral-rich corner of rural Tamil Nadu in order to make way for mining corporations to set up shop. Newly appointed as a driver to a unit working deep in the forest, constable Kumaresan (Soori) runs up against his superior Raghavendar after he develops affection for the local population, who support the rebellion and distrust the law enforcers.

Manifesting variously in allegorical (2011’s Aadukalam), legal (2016’s Visaranai) and historical (2018’s Vada Chennai and 2019’s Asuran) forms, violence has been the idee fixe, the central subject of Vetrimaaran’s body of work. Yet, barring perhaps Visaranai, his films have proven themselves increasingly unwilling to transform it artistically, to relate the viewer to on-screen violence in any other terms than voyeuristic.

The problem is that Vetrimaaran is so committed to a form of seamy, immersive realism that the only way he can depict violence is in terms of its real-world plausibility; the primary effect he aims at is moral outrage. The problem is also that Vetrimaaran has now been overtaken by hacks who have perfected his original method and rendered it highly conventional. You can’t help but laugh or wince when the police in Viduthalai wrest away adults from a hut to leave behind a crying infant. Or when Raghavendar, having stripped a group of women, asks his deputy for chilli powder, kindling the sordid parts of our imagination. With Viduthalai, Vetrimaaran may have voluntarily turned himself into a meme.

Like Asuran, Viduthalai applies a jittery editing to the most basic of conversation scenes, never lingering on the actors for more than a couple of seconds. When, for instance, protagonist Kumaresan and his sweetheart Tamizharasi (Bhavani Sre) are talking at a shrine in the woods, the camera keeps switching perspectives, suggesting inexistent threats. This CCTV-adjacent aesthetic is generalized in Viduthalai, which, while nominally told in Kumaresan’s epistolary voiceover, keeps shifting perspectives for the sake of furnishing additional narrative information. The film treats its actors like non-professionals, rarely providing them close-ups or extended shots outside of kitschy montage songs, because Vetrimaaran seeks to neutralize their performance with heavy dubbing — the same kind of asynchronous mush that made Asuran so jarring — which undermines his otherwise realist approach.

The longer shots in the film, on the other hand, are devoted to passages of extreme physicality. We see Soori running in from deep inside the frame, out of breath, or doing squat walks as part of punishment in unbroken shots. It is plain by now that Vetrimaaran is excited at the prospect of choreographing such convincing scenes of exertion and torture, compared to the simple, mundane presence of bodies talking to one another. It’s as though Vetrimaaran the filmmaker is bored to death by Vetrimaaran the screenwriter, who can’t help but insert political lectures into the mouths of characters or flatter us with snappy, jargon-laden insider talk among top-level police officers.

A number of things nonetheless ensure Viduthalai is never less than absorbing. The inspired casting, for one; to see a tragic hero in the perennial comic Soori not only imparts a dialectical streak to the protagonist, it also affords Vetrimaaran to work out a nurturing, vastly different kind of masculinity than the avenging, star-driven model of Asuran. Flabbier than usual, the middle-aged Soori can hardly pass for a rookie cop, but his naivete and professional disenchantment are never in question. It’s touching to see his unprepared body slip on rocks, jump across rooftops or trudge through a difficult, rocky terrain — a terrain that is transformed into a garden through the power of his love. Despite his omnipresence in Tamil cinema these days, Gautam Menon is excellent as a ruthless officer who is persuaded that winning hearts and minds is the first step to defeating terror (although his character undergoes an inexplicable corruption that gives mixed signals which are never resolved).

Among the most articulate, committed filmmakers of his generation, Vetrimaaran takes obvious pleasure in elucidating ideological processes shaping his narrative. To this end, we have the superintendent of police, played by cinematographer Rajeev Menon (the third director in the cast after Gautam Menon and Tamizh, who plays another policeman), expounding on political strategies such as party-led protests that act as democratic safety valves against armed insurgency, poster campaigns to instil hope in doubtful investors or having decoy militants surrender in a ploy for the police to take moral high ground. If these details don’t make you laugh, they are bound to leave you impressed — just like the flashy, one-shot train wreck that opens the film.

The most compelling aspect of Viduthalai is, however, its final (and only) set-piece which intercuts between the aforesaid scene of Raghavendar humiliating the women and an ununiformed, unarmed Kumaresan running through a maze-like town chasing the rebel leader Perumal (Vijay Sethupathi, who appears after an hour into the film). The sequence intriguingly casts Kumaresan’s courage as a product of desperation, an act of “fleeing forward.” The scene is also rather surprising in the manner in which it pits Kumaresan’s romance not against his allegiance to the police force, as we are led to expect, but against his newfound sympathy for Perumal. In doing so, it approximates the paradox of identification that Visaranai posed insofar as we are caught between a desire to see the cops succeed in capturing Perumal and a profound hatred for them for what they are doing to the captive women.

Viduthalai is, to be sure, an improvement over the slapdash production that was Asuran. It certainly isn’t made with an eye on the box-office, and if it does bomb, which is a likely development, Vetrimaaran would still go to bed a happy man. But the film doesn’t seem to me like an inflection point in his career, for it doesn’t evolve Vetrimaaran’s style as much as harden it, set it in stone. And that’s too unfortunate for a filmmaker who has just begun.

[Part of Curator’s Corner, a section dedicated to showcasing work of emerging and marginal filmmakers. See here for details.]

In this edition of Curator’s Corner, I’m happy to bring to your attention Searcher (2022), a short film by New Delhi-based independent filmmaker, Divya Sachar. A graduate from the first batch of the television department of the FTII, Divya was convinced early on — thanks to the intense experience at the institute of watching films from around the world, especially those of Ingmar Bergman — that she didn’t want to just find a place in the Bombay movie industry. Her diploma project, titled The Dead (2004), is an intimate, localized adaptation of James Joyce’s eponymous short story.

While working in the field of advertising, Divya made her first film for the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. It was called A Short Film About… (2008), and as that title indicates, it was about a subject around which an awkward silence reigns: breasts. In this half-hour documentary, several teenagers and young women talk about their breasts and how they impact their everyday lives, their relationships and their view of themselves. Woven alongside these highly articulate interviews are clips from popular movies and music videos, a personal voiceover by the filmmaker and an assortment of punning images that evoke the film’s subject.

While insightful and ripe for academic analysis, A Short Film About… derives its value in sticking close to the participants’ lived experience and not theorizing it on our behalf. The testimonies are remarkably candid and grounded in everyday life. Structured in a simple, snappy rhythm, the work defuses a great, perhaps universal taboo with warmth and humour. “It usually makes for good community viewing because it’s quite a funny film,” says the filmmaker, “and laughing alone isn’t as much fun as being among a group of gigglers.”

A Short Film About… is explicitly about the body image, but it is also in some ways about the cinematic image; a film as much about human sight as it is about breasts, which, the interviews reveal, occupy an uneasy space between the private and the public — objects to be concealed but inevitably subject to visual scrutiny. Throughout the film, Divya varies the framing pattern, now photographing the participants chest-up, now in close-up. These variations have the effect of making us aware of our own gaze and reflexively grapple with the problems of filming the female body.

Divya made her next film after a break of over a decade, induced by an undiagnosed health condition. Searcher, a play on Divya’s family name, is framed as a self-interrogation. After an opening title card invokes the neuroscientific basis for the existence of inter-generational trauma, the filmmaker informs us that she was diagnosed with schizophrenia a few years before. The film that follows is an attempt to understand her condition through the story of her grandmother, who migrated to India from present-day Pakistan during the Partition, only to lead a short-lived life of drudgery and suffering.

At the centre of Searcher is a house, an ancestral property, where the filmmaker’s grandmother once lived. The residence looks at once occupied and abandoned; where the thickly furnished interiors give a sense of inhabited space — an impression reinforced by muffled sounds of cooking and chatting — shots of wilting plants, discarded furniture, peeling paint and rusting locks suggest a forlorn site, a haunted bungalow even. The multiplication of mirrors and reflective surfaces, on which we periodically glimpse the filmmaker, amplify the feeling of inwardness, of the filmmaker being locked in.

As the house is surveyed in a mix of roving and static shots, a dialogue ensues between the filmmaker and the jamun tree adjoining the property. The tree narrates the harsh life experiences of the filmmaker’s grandmother. At one point, when the camera encircles a chakki (a traditional grindstone), we are shown Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of the horrors of the Partition while the soundtrack plays ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s field recording of Old Alabama, sung by African-American prisoners. Adding to the implied tyranny of this domestic rigour is a traumatic incident in which, the tree tells us, grandmother was thrown out of the house in a state of undress by her husband.

Grandmother, we are informed, died shortly before the filmmaker was born, making the tree a kind of stand-in for the old lady, a reincarnation; Divya films the tree in tilt shots the same way she films her grandmother in photographs. Searcher articulates the inheritance of malaise across these three figures, invoking the filmmaker’s mental illness in direct relation to her grandmother’s trauma as well as to the blight that the jamun tree is suffering. Each one thus takes on the quality of a metaphor for the other: the Partition is recast as the schizophrenia of a nation torn apart, while the filmmaker views her own condition in terms of the inescapability of the grind of life.

Searcher is a looser, less regimented film than A Short Film About… Its shot composition is more intuitive and the sound mix — with high-volume music and ambient noise sharply cutting into the voiceover — deliberately abrasive. “One aspect of my approach to sound was to be completely unsentimental,” says Divya. “In contrast to dissolves, straight cuts are unsentimental.” What Searcher sacrifices in expositional and structural clarity compared A Short Film About…, it gains in emotional density. It’s a lyrical, reflective work that dwells on surfaces and textures, shadows and forms, the spaces between objects and the inchoate feelings they conjure.

A poetic diary film that is also an oblique ghost story, Searcher hints at apparitions and revenants. The camera has a markedly physical quality, only to be suddenly disembodied by the sight of the filmmaker holding another camera. In the final minutes, we see Divya editing the film seated at a desk in the house. Cut to solemn notes from a harmonium, the image evokes a propitiative ritual, a kind of rapprochement that allows the filmmaker to come to terms with the lineage of her pain. “The idea was to show the process of my recovery,” remarks Divya. “Making the film was therapeutic for me, as was the spiritual intervention of my guru.”

Searcher is not yet available for viewing online, but residents of New Delhi can catch a screening at Studio Safdar on 15 April 2023 as part of reFrame’s G-Fest, with the filmmaker in attendance. Divya hopes that the film can find a wider audience very soon.



Divya Sachar is a Delhi-based filmmaker, photographer and writer. She completed her Masters in English Literature from Delhi University and postgraduate specialization in Television Direction from the Film and TV Institute of India, Pune. Her first directorial work A Short Film About… received critical acclaim and aired on national television. Her second film Searcher has traveled to festivals such as Prismatic Ground, New York, and International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala. She also writes on films and the visual arts, and has taught screenwriting and direction at Bennett University, Greater Noida. Divya‘s photography and creative nonfiction have been published by Fall Line Press. She is currently working on her first photobook.


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  • The Dead, 2004, 24 min., Betacam
  • A Short Film About…, 2008, 29 min., digital
  • Searcher, 2022, 20 min., digital
  • Conflict (work-in-progress)
  • Unstory (work-in-progress)


A Short Film About… (2008)

Indian cinema was in spotlight at the recently concluded International Film Festival Rotterdam, with over thirty titles presented at the two-week event. The majority of these were part of a special non-competitive section titled “The Shape of Things to Come?”, curated by Stefan Borsos, that sought to explore the following question: “Is the institutional success of right-wing Hindu-nationalist groups and the persecution of dissenting voices a sign for the shape of things to come – and not only in India?”

The formally eclectic program showcased a mix of acclaimed fiction features, documentaries, experimental YouTube videos and Bollywood productions, alongside a lecture and a panel discussion. The political ascent of Hindutva was the dominant theme of the curation, with a number of films delving into the ideological and operational aspects of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Many of the works  dealt with particular events—demolition of the Babri Masjid, Godhra riots, anti-CAA protests, COVID-19 lockdown—while some others evoked the atmosphere of fear, intolerance and disillusionment prevalent at different times and places in the country in the last thirty years. A notable subset of films trained their lens on the phenomenon of radicalization and the role that digital media has played in exacerbating it.

Harshad Nalawade’s smart, sympathetic drama Follower confronts the issue of radicalization head on, but remaps it along linguistic lines, bypassing the conservative-liberal dichotomy typical of culture wars. The film takes place in the border town of Belgaum, which, an infographic at the beginning apprises us, has long been a bone of contention between Kannada and Marathi chauvinists. Raghu is an activist at an online media outlet affiliated with a Marathi political party. When his inflammatory posts result in tragedy, we are taken in back in time to understand how a decent, kind young man came to be an internet thug.

The younger Raghu is close friends with Sachin, a successful Kannadiga YouTuber from a perceivably more affluent family, and with Parveen, a single mother whom he has feelings for. Seemingly immune to language wars, the three friends converse in a mixture of tongues and are at ease with their differences. Yet, at various moments, Raghu is shown his place by those that around him, made to feel like an outsider in his own home. These everyday frustrations and untimely mishaps snowball into a psychic assault on Raghu, persuading him to see himself as a victim. Follower touchingly illustrates the corrosive power of political narratives, capable of corrupting the deepest of bonds.

Anurag Kashyap’s short film, Four Slippers (“Chaar Chappalein”) affirms Follower’s diagnosis, but its subject is the personal cost of radicalization. Written by Varun Grover, the film is divided into four chapters wittily modelled on the four ashramas of Hindu life. In the first episode, set in Varanasi in the 1970s, a boy named Rajat is caught fantasizing in class and humiliated by a sadistic schoolmaster. This brutal repression marks the young man for good, catapulting him into a life of progressive social and emotional isolation that comes to an ironic end some twenty years from now.

Despite its coolly analytical approach that obliges the viewer to observe Rajat rather than identify with him, Four Slippers manages to convey the tragedy of a sensitive individual lost to hatred and communal polarization. Rajat’s trajectory, from a young lad who stutteringly sings Kishore Kumar’s “O Saathi Re” to a crush to a lonely man who spends his days online abusing people disagreeing with him, tells the story of an increasing alienation from the world. It is a sad portrait of a gradual inner exile that puts a finger on a very contemporary malaise.

Both Follower and Four Slippers view social media as an indispensable way station on the journey to political extremism. How has the telecom revolution of the past decade changed the shape of Indian democracy? Avijit Mukul Kishore’s short documentary An Election Diary considers this question against the backdrop of the 2019 general elections. Confining itself to the suburban constituency of Phulpur in Allahabad, the film examines the efforts of the BJP in both reaching out to voters through targeted campaigns and bringing them to the booth on election day.

Made as part of a research project for the University of Göttingen, An Election Diary furnishes no voiceover commentary, nor does it place its material within a national context. What we get instead is a highly local mixture of street interviews, kitschy YouTube clips and revealing IT-cell meetings. The cadres, organized into niche social-media units responsible for particular tasks, discuss the strategy of using smartphones to rally voters. Their campaign consistently foregrounds the personality of Narendra Modi, whose shining image is used to gloss over infrastructural issues affecting the constituency. In this scheme of things, digital media becomes a veritable simulacrum replacing reality.

Smartphones and social media, on the other hand, enjoy only a marginal presence in Varun Chopra’s Holy Cowboys. Set in the environs of Vapi in Gujarat, Chopra’s loosely fictionalized documentary keeps its ears to the ground in its attempt to trace a classic pathway to radicalization. Gopal, a teenager who works at a packaging plant, comes across a calf feeding on the kind of plastic bags he produces at work. In genuine concern, he brings the stray animal to a cow shelter run by a Hindu volunteer organization. He becomes a regular visitor to this place and is soon caught up in the outfit’s vigilante operations.

Narrated like a coming-of-age tale with moody music, Holy Cowboys devotes significant time to Gopal’s interactions with his teenage peers. We don’t get to know what the boy thinks of the organization’s activities, but it is apparent that his attraction to it originates from the camaraderie and the sense of community it offers—an empowerment sorely missing in his daily life. In shining a light on the weaponization of compassion, Chopra’s film agrees with Follower and Four Slippers that forces of radicalization feed on deep-seated human issues, offering hatred as a coping mechanism. Illness masquerading as cure.


[First published in Mint Lounge]

What struck me first watching Thuramukham, a large-scale period picture about docker struggle in coastal Kerala, is how abstract and timeless it feels. Rajeev Ravi’s fourth feature is certainly set in a specific location and era—the area of Mattanchery in Cochin during the forties and the fifties—but it isn’t until a good while that these particulars come to the fore. Where Rajeev’s previous films establish time and place in their opening minutes, Thuramukham immerses us into a fable-like world that feels untouched by history. When the camera descends into an anonymous settlement of huts in the first shot — one of the film’s many convergences with Bala’s Paradesi (2013) — it’s not even clear if it’s a real space.

Living in this netherworld—a cinematographer’s paradise, with its candlelit rooms and nocturnal action—are dockhands who fight every day for chapas, work permits tossed at them by exploiting contractors, and spend what remains of their wages on alcohol and gambling. Part of Thuramukham traces the evolution of this lumpen mass into a proletariat fighting for its rights, developed through the characters of brothers Moidu (Nivin Pauly) and Hamza (Arjun Ashokan). This vast, generation-spanning narrative arc gives the film an epic sweep comparable to that of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), on which Rajeev was cinematographer.

The sprawl of the film has another possible source. Rajeev Ravi is a filmmaker with a weakness for classic literature. He gravitates towards stories of individuals swept along by the forces of time. His characters are often passive witnesses of history who, by choice or circumstance, become its protagonists. Thuramukham, written by Gopan Chithambaran and dipping in and out of Russian literature, fissures the leading character of Kammattipaadam (2016) into the figures of Moidu and Hamza, men whose nihilism or passivity renders them victims of history, only to fuse them again in their choice to act.

The monumentality of Thuramukham is only part of the story. What really nuances this testosterone-driven saga, and why I find the film to be a significant departure from Rajeev’s earlier work, is the way it relentlessly balances the epic with the intimate. The world of Thuramukham is very distinctly divided into domestic and public spheres, which respectively translate to feminine and masculine domains of action. Politics is the means by which men look out for one another, while women find solace in each other through shared suffering and mutual care.

The lack of feminine agency in Rajeev’s films has been noted, and I can’t help but feel that Thuramukham is working out an answer to that reproach. At first glance, the film only adds fuel to the fire. Confined to their homes, the women nurture, love and suffer in silence as men get out there to take control of their fates. But, for once, we also see the havoc the men wreak by their actions or inaction. The film reserves its most evocative closeups for its leading women, the terrific Poornima Indrajith and Nimisha Sajayan, whose faces bear the brunt of men’s follies.

So the film responds to the exclusion of women from public sphere by revalorizing the domestic sphere. For one, its political story is couched within an intricate filial narrative in which the class consciousness of the prodigal son coincides with his coming home while that of his brother coincides with his leaving home for the streets. It is also substantial that, unlike its predecessors, Thuramukham ends on the closeup of a woman, one who has been forced to leave her household and mourn in public.

[Originally written for IFFR 2021]