Watching ‘Daayen Ya Baayen’ is like visiting a place, not as a tourist, but with someone who belongs there, who takes you to their home, and introduces you to their family, friends and neighbors. A short synopsis of the film would do it no justice. A writer goes back home to his village from the city, dreams of opening a cultural centre in the village, wins a red car in a TV contest, wins fame in his village, loses the car, loses his dignity, and chases through the hills to win his car and dignity back.
What makes the film is the writer, director, editor Bela Negi’s rootedness in the milieu of Uttarakhand. She weaves the narrative with little stories, little details, inflections of the voices, faces, the texture of the walls, and above all the hills. There is the impassioned poet Ramesh Majhila (Deepak Dobriyal), sure that he can change life in the village and bring self-confidence to its children with a cultural centre. But there are also his old, beedi smoking, cussing mother (Dhanuli Devi), his petulant, ambitious wife Hema (Bharati Bhatt), his naive sister-in-law Deepa (Aarti Dhami), his adoring son Baju (Pratyush Dhoklan), his side-kick friend Basant (Badrul Islam) and the village good-for-nothing Sunder (Manav Kaul). There are also scores of other little characters, the geography teacher who gets a student to knit for her in class, the principal of the school who can use ‘and miles to go before you sleep’ on any occasion, the mining contractor who wants to exploit Majhila’s car and fame to win an election seat, the old woman Harul-di who has been awarded 5 lakhs by the government 50 years after Independence for her freedom fighter husband and who gives it away to anyone who asks her for it, (for herself she needs only good walking shoes, and a packet of cigarettes), Harul-di’s granddaughter and Deepa’s friend Meena,, who would like to be called ‘Kamakshi’ after a popular television character and who pretends to be possessed by a devi for the benefit of the television cameras, the two drunkards who comment on government and Majhila’s family life, every night as they pass his bedroom window.
All these and more, unravel village life like it is, the particular mischievousness of Uttarakhandi culture, a warmth coated with malice, a humor that can be rude and blatant but is overlaid with courtesy, and a genuine desire to help.
A large part of the cast is from Uttarakhand, some with theatre and film experience, but a lot of whom have faced the camera for the first time. They bring a freshness to the film that belies the protagonist’s concern that the people in the hills have everything but lack self-confidence.
Cinematographer Amlan Datta has worked on documentaries for several years. He brings that as a strength to this film. Some arresting visual moments like a rainbow in the mountains, a forest fire, and the first appearance of the mining contractor in a cloud of dust in the mines have been captured opportunely, adding great value to the film.
The camera remains static most of the time. Action is built within the shot. Humor is created by the framing, the play of light and shadow, the angles, none of which are deliberate or stylized, but just true to the emotion of the scene. Most scenes are executed in a shot or two, but none of them go by without bringing to life yet another detail of village life or character. This, coupled with the lively music track by Vivek Phillip, keeps the pace engrossing even though there is nothing very dramatic in the narrative.
When the camera does move, there is a purpose to it, particularly effective in the few crane shots during a scene where Majhila, Basant, Sunder and some other villagers lie down drunk in a field, after they have failed to find the car. Majhila recites a few lines of poetry and the camera moves across the friends, the surrounding fields and the hills evoking melancholy and the sorrow of virtually all adult lives.
Bela in fact, touches on several problems that beset the village, alcoholism, a lack of will power, the distances which children have to travel to go to school, the quality of the education itself, the burden of work on women, the depletion of forests, the onslaught of television, but all these are woven into the story with her characteristic humor, within the dialogue or shot-taking.
The story is so original that it is unpredictable. It is like the delightful Uttarakhandi sweet ‘baal’, a chocolate fudge halwa coated with tiny white sugar balls, which is neither chocolate, nor fudge, nor halwa but something uniquely ‘baal’. ‘Daayen ya Baayen’ is truly an auteur’s work, a work that is like no other, a particular story told by a particular person in a particular way. I don’t say this lightly. The film comes together in narrative content and craft without betraying its low production cost. And it does this without resorting to cynicism, swear words, sensationalism, sex or violence, which have lately come to be the hallmarks of independent cinema. The film shines with pure affection for the people whose story it is, and the people who are being told the story.
To read Bela and Amlan’s reflections on the film, go here.