As in her three earlier feature films — Man with the Binoculars: Antardrishti (2016); Village Rockstars (2017), which was a Best Foreign contender at the Oscars; and Bulbul Can Sing (2018) — Rima Das is a multihyphenate in her new film. She writes, shoots, directs and edits Tora’s Husband, a quietly implosive film that derives its power largely on the crushing interiority of its two lead characters. There are ways in which Tora’s Husband is similar to Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing — Das’s guerrilla-style filming in both films, shot with available resources and mostly available light in the open vistas of rural Assamese landscapes and their habitat, are as rhapsodic about human triumph as they are documentary-like in treatment and pace. Both, concerning teenage dreams and the free-spirited ambitions, are odes to her native village of Chhaygaon in Lower Assam. In Tora’s Husband, she moves to an urban setting — with ubiquitous markers of small businesses and enterprises, cemented roads, and cheap Chinese phones—but the filmmaking style here too is minimalistic but with enough focus on the small beauties.
Tora’s Husband also differs from her two earlier successes in fundamental ways. The film doesn’t follow a distinct three-act structure or is big on plot or even character. It is instead a languid pastiche of sensitively observed — and not highly dramatised — snapshots in the life of a generous, enterprising and diligent family man. The pandemic is in every frame — masks, ambulances, police enquiries. The lead role of Jaan is played by Das’s brother Abhijit Das. He struggles to keep his business — a baked goods shop at the hub of the small urban outpost near Guwahati where he lives with his wife (Tarali Kalita Das, who is Abhijit Das’s real-life wife) and two children, a toddler daughter and a pre-adolescent son. Jaan’s struggles aren’t magnified, and yet it is a persuasive and authentic portrait of a man trying hard to keep a life together despite debts, his desire to be a do-gooder, and the slow compressing of the relationship between him and his wife. Jaan’s tone is at once beseeching and befuddled. His smile is either hearty and wide or so faint you won’t notice it. Like all of humanity, Jaan is nonplussed — what’s the way out of this misery, his always-desultory expression seems to suggest he’s asking himself. While Das’s earlier films have a somewhat linear arc culminating in gentle reconciliation of the narratives’ conflicts, here she is more philosophical. She delves into details of expression, actions as well as a frame or scene, and chips away at answers to the kind of questions that have arisen in the films of Richard Linklater:
How does a human being grow?
What’s on the other side of a crisis you yourself did not apparently create with your own actions? Do we live and learn or is living with hardship enough? When Jaan can’t find solace in alcohol, which he turns to every evening after the daily hustle of maintaining a business, keeping his employees, being the helpful neighbour, ensuring online school is smooth for his son, keeping his distant mother happy, finding the family’s pet dog who has gone missing, and teaching the village kids football, he simply winces with implosive malcontent. You wonder when will his daily quest to refloat and sail on will disintegrate. But in her storytelling Das makes that moment unnecessary. The screenplay and treatment are engaged with the small moments of this family’s life: Tora’s (the name Tora however never comes up in the entire film, we just know because of the title who Tora is) dispassionate complaint to a friendly neighbour that her husband is “a good man but a bad husband”, the small thrills and distractions of childhood, Jaan philosophising on the multitude that all our worlds contain with a friend, Tora enjoying learning cycling with her son precariously on a terrace. The snapshots add up for a full portrait of intimacy, discord, compromise and the need for belongi