The first few minutes of Gurvinder Singh’s Adh Chanani Raat (“Crescent Moon”), which premiered at the Harbour section of IFFR, are of such economy and precision that they set up the lead character with great clarity: arriving at a small-town railway station in Punjab, Modan (Jatinder Mauhar) tells a rickshaw puller that he has always paid only 10 rupees — and not 150 as the man demands — for the ride to his village. Deciding to walk instead, he finds himself giving directions to a passing SUV: he delivers it fumblingly, albeit with a feigned authority that makes it evident that we have here a man who thinks he belongs in these parts, but has been long evicted from them by time.

There is a reason why time feels out of joint for him: he is returning after fifteen years of prison time for murder. When Modan arrives home to his aged mother (Dharminder Kaur), the prodigal son takes some time to absorb the situation, to come to terms with the fact that things aren’t the same anymore. The landlords who killed his father have taken over the village, pushing his family to the outskirts. Worse, his own brothers are working with the landlords now and have built a mansion from the new money. Simmering with rage at this double betrayal, Modal wanders the village at night, ending at the local watering hole where, by way of gossip, drunk old men bring us up to speed on the family rivalry.

When good sense returns, Modan decides to build life anew: he breaks with his brothers to reconnect with an old friend Ruldu (Samuel John), a man without an ounce of ill will towards him. Modan begins to work on Ruldu’s sugarcane fields and, with the help of his friend, restores the ancestral the property from which his family was evicted. He reinstates his mother in this house that she had been made to leave six years ago. Soon after, wishing to start a family, Modan marries Sukhi (Mauli Singh), a young widow with a child.

A home, however, can’t be collected and this dream assemblage of Modan’s strains at its seams: uprooted from her other sons, mother feels somewhat restless at this new-old place; she doesn’t exactly get along well with Sukhi and wanders away from home. Sukhi has her own personal baggage that she is not ready to share with new husband. Waking up next to a toddler doesn’t, moreover, seem to be the image of domestic bliss that Modan had imagined for himself. Ruldu’s aggressive neighbours encroach his land, provoking the two friends to fight back. Modan’s younger brother, too, has run-ins with the landlords and comes over to his elder sibling’s side. All through, there is a constant threat that Modan might regress into the past.

Inspired by from Gurdial Singh’s novel of the same name (1996), Adh Chanani Raat is resolutely fixed on Modan, his figure, his world, his violence. Except for an unexpected flashback where we see Modan killing a man in revenge, the landlords he seethes against are barely seen, so much so that they could represent a metaphysical threat; indeed, when Modan creates a ruckus around the landlords’ bungalow towards the film’s end, he looks up at the sky as though he were challenging gods rather than men. But the entities that are on the margins of Modan’s universe offer a more telling commentary, an alternative to its model of retributive masculinity: Ruldu’s reticent young son, the beseeching voice of the landlords’ mother that echoes Modan’s mother, Sukhi’s child who may yet be saved from this cycle of revenge.

Yet this privileging of Modan’s perspective also disadvantages the film in some ways. One the one hand, the narrative intends us to view him as a victim of the landlords’ chicanery and his belligerence as noble resistance to them. But because the antagonists have no presence in the film, this implied injustice doesn’t register as well as it should. I think the script forces the matter further by having Modan spontaneously instigate a violent confrontation whose bloody outcome comes across less like tragic fall than mere machismo that was asking for it: play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

Jatinder Mauhar, six feet tall, plays Modan as a hulking creature ready to combust at any moment. There is little history in his performance, little sense that this man has spent 15 years in a cell, and I think this is what the script expects of him: a character so consumed by revenge that even time hasn’t muffled the indignation. Gurvinder devotes long shots of him just walking, which gives us an inkling of his blind determination, but it is a shot of him uncharacteristically coming home with a bag of groceries that expresses his essential unpreparedness for what he desires.

Like Gurvinder’s previous films, Adh Chanani Raat continues to present a Punjab that the rest of us rarely get to see: people as they are, proud, kind, arrogant, dignified. Shots of Modan sneaking out from his brother’s oversized mansion on a used motorbike, with prayers blaring out from a gurdwara nearby, or the long sequence of him rediscovering his childhood home — made of a slowly panning camera reminiscent of Mani Kaul — give a hint of the work’s lived-in texture.

On the contrary, the film doesn’t clearly establish the geography of its story; the relation between the brother’s mansion (supposedly on the “outskirts”), the ancestral home (in the village? town?), the landlord’s bungalow and Ruldu’s cane fields is never evident, which means Modan’s constant peregrinations between these locations are even more disorienting; this, despite the fact that Ruldu offers Modan a charming tour of the transformations in the village, its growing inequality, its realigned power relations and its material problems.

Lastly, I had the impression that Gurvinder would rather have made Adh Chanani Raat on celluloid, where the camera movements could have been put to better effect. As it is, the film has the look of a ‘90s telefilm shot on analog video, especially the night scenes that appear somewhat diffuse or bleached out. It also takes some shine off the actors’ performances.