A slice-of-life Assamese-language feature by Rima Das, Tora’s Husband is at once introspective and immersive

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The pandemic not only threw our lives, and livelihoods, into disarray, it also made us reassess our priorities. During the lockdown, as we retreated indoors, filled with fear and foreboding, we also looked within. Relationships were tested, bonds were forged anew, and families were brought closer. In her fourth slice-of-life feature, Tora’s Husband, National Award-winning filmmaker Rima Das tells the story of a small-time businessman in rural Assam, who finds the certitudes of his personal and entrepreneurial life disintegrating around him as the virus spreads.

Shot over two years as the fear of the contagion loomed in her native village Kalardiya, near Chaygaon in lower Assam, Tora’s Husband has been written, edited, produced and directed by Das, who has fashioned a style all her own in films like Village Rockstar (2017, India’s official entry for Oscars in 2019) and Bulbul Can Sing (2018). Featuring the filmmaker’s brother, Abhijit Das, and sister-in-law, Tarali Kalita Das, in the lead roles, it’s a slowburn, like her previous films. It unravels at a languorous pace, gradually leading us into the world of Abhay Das (Abhijit), a restaurateur, a doting father of two, and a compassionate neighbour, who is sensitive to their needs, including financial exigencies.

An introspective fare

It's at once introspective and immersive. Even philosophical. Dedicated to the filmmaker’s father, Bharat Chandra Das, whom she lost during the pandemic, it is crafted like a meditation on life and death, joy and sorrow. Abhay, lovingly called Jaan by everyone around him, owns a bakery and a restaurant. Amid the spectre of the coronavirus, he is caught in the struggle to run a family — wife Tora (Tarali), son Bhargav (Bhuman Bhargav Das) and daughter (Purbanchali Das)and, at the same time, stem the tide of mounting loss as the new normal takes a toll; the footfall at his restaurant drops significantly, the workers don’t report to work.

Consumed by the prospect of precariousness, Abhay gets into a side hustle to make money. For which he ends up borrowing more money from his neighbours. He also takes to the bottle to drown all his tension in alcohol. In 121 minutes, Rima packs in a lot. A montage of the everyday, the film bristles with the lived experiences of the real-life couple, their fears and anxieties, their quibbles and concerns. As Abhay gets thrust into a relentless storm of challenges, Tora feels neglected: at some point, she terms him as “a nice man but a bad husband” because he doesn’t care about her feelings; she can’t stand the smell of alcohol, but is unable to convince Jaan to give it up. He insists he can’t relax until he has a peg or two. There are things that are conspicuous, but there is a great deal that remains unsaid, leaving the viewers to read between the lines.

The adult angst

If she explored childhood dreams and teenage sexual awakening in her last two films, Tora’s Husband seems to be preoccupied with adult angst and restlessness, desolation and despair, and what it means to be together but alone. Tora had married a different man; torn between work and family, he no longer seems to be the same. In scene after well-wrought scene, executed with tremendous deft, and featuring the ambient sounds of Assam’s countryside — the chirping of birds, the chatter of people on the streets, the song of the cicadas — as well as its picturesque landscapes, the film portrays a world in upheaval, where the once-familiar rhythms of existence has been ruptured.

Those who catch the virus are treated as outcasts, with Jaan not allowing his maid to step inside his house even if she recovers, leaving the weight of household chores on Tora. Abhijit and Tarali, and the two children their life is centred on, are exceptional, even though they are not trained actors. The latter two seem to have a natural flair for performance. We see them doing what children do: enjoying baths, playing in a puddle, and looking for their crossbreed Piku, who goes missing.

The quotidian as art

Rima is a self-taught, observational filmmaker, who derives her material from the mundane and the quotidian. Her films, made in the style of the documentary, stitches together the vignettes from the lives of her characters and show us the story’s undercurrents, its many subtexts; the style lends her films a credence of the real, and the cadence of the local. Sagar Desai’s background music includes Assamese folk songs. There are pithy lines by minor characters, who are picked for the film because they form a part of the fabric of communal life in Assam.

In a scene, a poet is seen reciting his poems to Jaan: “He is a nomad of the world/traversing path, unknown/I’ve heard that when the spine bends/people act like animals/Does this tale, this age-old song still hold strong?/In every corner, there’s a wild, unrestrained frenzy of sounds/Humanity has gone wild /Did you hear the story about the spine bending the truth.” The poet shares with Jaan how his life and his livelihood run on separate tracks. “I run around all day to feed my stomach. Lucky are those who make a living from their passion,” he tells him. Jaan’s passion was football. He had won the championship trophy when he played for the first time. But that lies in the past. As a businessman, he is invested in the idea of nurturing young talents.

In one scene, a band of two sings a song about the devotion to Lord Krishna. Jaan is enchanted. ‘You sing well,’ he says. ‘But the sirens (of the ambulance) ruined it,’ the visually impaired artiste replies. The same can be said about the song of life; the virus robs it of its harmony, creating a dissonance. When Jaan asks after them, one of them says: ‘We are surviving between highs and lows. Happiness and sadness are a part of life.’ Jaan’s own situation seems to be the same. At work, while the daily grind becomes too much to handle, he feels obligated to do his duties. Life has to go on. No virus is potent enough to stifle its inherent music.

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