Releasing on September 29, Rima Das’ latest directorial - Tora’s Husband - takes a deeper look at the human cost of the Covid-19 pandemic
STORY: With the pandemic wreaking havoc in people’s lives, a small-town married couple in Assam struggle to come to terms with the challenging times that have also intruded on their emotional connection.
REVIEW: Until a few years ago, Rima Das was regarded as an emergent Assamese talent whose Oscar-nominated movie, Village Rockstars, gave Northeast India the long-yearned-for recognition in the world of independent cinema. Known for her slow, observational yet poignant style of filmmaking, she then released yet another contemplative gem, Bulbul Can Sing. However, it’s her latest directorial - Tora’s Husband - that more profoundly exhibits her deep understanding of the disquiet that we often find ourselves navigating in life. Empathy and helplessness dovetail in a narrative that centres on a small-town businessman in Assam, who struggles to bring his life back on track as the world wobbles in and out of lockdowns amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Jaan (Abhijit Das) is a dutiful family man, who has a bit of a ‘drinking problem’. Owner of a restaurant and bakery - called Snow White - in Chaygaon (a town located about 40 kms from Guwahati), Jaan lives with his wife Tora (Tarali Kalita Das) and two children Bhargav (Bhuman Bhargav Das) and Manu (Purbanchali Das). He drives a Bolero and loves to play football at a nearby ground, where he also trains a bunch of youngsters. Tora, on the other hand, has a green thumb and she loves to decorate the house with potted plants. While Jaan is usually busy taking care of his enterprise, helping out people in the neighbourhood and doing other stuff, it’s Tora who dedicatedly caters to the kids’ day-to-day needs.
Tora’s husband is a calm, compassionate and kind-hearted man, who is grappling to keep his business afloat amid the Coronavirus-induced restrictions and precautionary measures. Dwindling numbers of customers mean the confectionary items are resting on the shelves unsold, while he has to ensure that salaries are paid to his staff at the end of the month. In a bid to ease the situation, Jaan takes up small contracts in the locality, but his money gets stuck there too. Adding to his woes is a throbbing headache that pins him down every now and then. Jaan’s mother lives with his sister, so he has to occasionally go and meet her too.
Does it mean that he can barely afford time for his wife and kids at home? Not really. Jaan and little Bhargav are deeply attached. More than being an indulgent father, he is trying to make his son self-reliant, kind as well as grow interest in sports/physical activities. Amid all the adversities, Jaan encourages the younger generation of his hometown to carve a place for themselves in the bigger world. The kind of care and compassion Jaan showed toward their pet dog, who went missing for a few days, as well as those stray animals on the streets speak volume about his humanity and thoughtfulness.
Tora is supportive and can comprehend the fact that these are tough times that need to be dealt with patience and resilience. But she obviously cannot tolerate her husband’s increasing alcoholism. “Jaan is a good man, but not a good husband. We hardly have a conversation these days. I don’t think I can continue in a relationship like this,” she complains to her friend over the phone.
It isn’t that Jaan is not aware of his failings, but he too needs help - not just financially but also some emotional support from his family, which he feels is lacking. “They say we all live in the same world. But we actually live in our own tiny worlds, unable to appreciate each other’s difficulties,” he tells an acquaintance.
A masterclass in reticent and impressionistic filmmaking, Tora’s Husband is a very personal story of the toll that the global health emergency took on people’s lives and how they responded to it. Despite being a singular narrative, Rima deftly layers the various subplots from the perspective of both a man and woman, when dealing with unforeseen circumstances in life. There’s an honest attempt to strike a balance between what a person goes through in reality and how it affects him/her on an emotional level. Instead of making it a tale of fraught relationships, the director delicately sheds light on the storm brewing between a husband and a wife, without making a villain out of either.
In tandem with the recurrent scenes of the lockdown period, the movie uses Covid centres, ambulances and frontline workers dressed in PPE overalls as plot devices. Meanwhile, there is also a generous dose of scenic locales, monsoon showers as well as other natural sights and sounds that are typical of the northeastern state’s milieu - elements that also usually punctuate the filmmaker’s distinctive style of storytelling. Mind you, Rima is also the writer, cinematographer, editor and producer of the 122-minute film.
A hyperlocal story presented in the pattern of world cinema, the film thrives on an emotive and lyrical narrative technique. With the majority of the cast members being non-actors, it speaks volumes about the filmmaker’s craft and vision, with bare minimum resources at her disposal. While Abhijit and Tarali (who also happen to be Rima’s brother and sister-in-law) deliver incredible performances with powerhouse finesse, the child artistes (Bhuman and Purbanchali) will win your heart with their subdued yet profound screen presence. Don’t miss the cameo appearance by legendary Assamese actress Moloya Goswami, who makes a mark with her natural acting. A Flying River Films presentation, the movie’s soulful theme song and background score (by Sagar Desai) deserve a special mention here.
VERDICT: A rare gem of regional cinema, Rima Das once again proves that filmmaking is more about intent, passion and a good script than it is about anything else. Tora’s Husband is a must-watch if you enjoy slow cinema and movies that do not rely on a definitive, punchy climax. A tenderly aching tale of the pandemic’s psychic cost, the director builds an immersive aura around the film’s characters and setting - something that you cannot escape without giving it a thought.