Back after the devastatingly brilliant “Gamak Ghar,” which broke new ground on personal storytelling, Achal Mishra explores another actor, this time in Darbhanga, wanting to make it big in films. Immediately resonant with the meticulous filmmaking style of its predecessor right from the first frame, “Dhuin” is again a testament to the lingering emotions that are the center point of Mishra’s storytelling, which encompasses the geography of the area it is set up in to create moods. The frames are filled up with layer after layer that speak to you on those levels to look into the heart and mind of the character. It is almost mathematical, the way Mishra designs images with a particular quality to them; they seem like an equation, balanced in all respects. Cinematographer Anand Bansal composes the frame in such a way that there are details in the foreground, mid-ground, and background, giving a kind of three-dimensionality to the film. Just like the characters and their innermost feelings, the frames evoke a layered harmony, which intersperses with the former to bring out the true essence of emotions. It is as if the shots sing a song of their own by merely bringing the character’s story to life using elements that elevate the resulting nature of it all. With the name “Darbhanga Wave” associated with the films being made in this town of Bihar that are unusually different in their aesthetics yet rooted in the intricacies of its culture, Achal Mishra is set to become the flag bearer for the reinvention of filmic techniques and breathing new energy into them.
Beginning with the performance of a street play, we meet Pankaj, who acts in it, paid meagrely by the Municipality Corporation to create awareness on social issues. Pankaj comes from a modest financial background; his old father is still looking for a job to bring food to the table while he finds ways to go to Mumbai and make it big. Pankaj is a decent actor, as we can see in some of the brief scenes, although he is not in tune with the world outside, which discusses Kiarostami and the dynamics of acting. In a heartbreaking sequence, as some of his friends meet one day to introduce him to another filmmaker from Mumbai, Pankaj struggles to be a part of the conversation. He looks around, his face evoking the embarrassing complexity of not knowing, which makes one doubt oneself. He cannot be a part of the discussion, and neither do the others around him care to explain, creating a distance. Later, he walks home amidst a cloud of fog on the street, becoming a part of it, immersed in thin air. Achal uses the fog, which is a popular visual memory of the state of Bihar, as a part of the narrative to delve deeper into the struggling mind of Pankaj. There are constant images of him standing in seclusion that remind us of his loneliness, which is driven by the small-town dream of ruling the silver screen.
Visuals of trains and airplanes dominate the 50-minute duration of the film. There is a constant sense of traveling to Mumbai, the land of dreams, which will resolve the issues Pankaj is grappling with. But to be able to get into the city itself requires a lot of pre-requisite resources. There is a railway line just behind Pankaj’s home, symbolic of the journey to the city, ringing all the time in his head, even at night. Along with his friend, he goes to a spot to look at the plane flying above, which again is a reflection of the inner desire to fly away from the village. But in between the plane and him, there is a huge distance of responsibilities marred by difficult socio-economic conditions. One needs foolproof backing to even dream. There is a constant feeling of getting stuck at a place when there are trains moving every minute, ready to take anyone away from the town. In a conversation early on with his friend, Pankaj expresses how he badly wants to go to Mumbai despite all the odds. The friend asks if he would still go if his father didn’t get a job. Pankaj thinks for a while and replies in the affirmative. Easier said than done, Pankaj remains stuck in the village till the end, trying to help his old father even if they exchange heated words about his acting stint. What happens to Pankaj? Will he be able to go to Mumbai? That remains a matter of speculation in the hands of the viewers as Mishra leaves the film like a lamp afloat in a pond. His job is done.
However, it is too short an exploration, with its duration being just under an hour. As the credits start to roll, there is a feeling of incompleteness, which would have added to the film’s depth if it were longer than it is. There are no questions left unanswered or any missing links, as the film doesn’t function along these lines. Rather, it would have helped to know more about Pankaj and his isolation and what eventually happened to him. Achal hints at multiple things but giving it a runtime of 30 minutes, more would have helped in penetrating his mind even more. As of now, there are heartbreaking glimpses that the visuals bring along. An NSD pass-out actor visits the workshop with which Pankaj is associated, and there ensues an interesting play of power that is briefly underlined in a series of scenes. Not being able to be a part of the conversation and being criticized by a senior, Pankaj is asked to bring tea for the visiting person. Pankaj hesitates. First, his self-respect is put to the test, but he later agrees. Being put to work for such small deeds as bringing smokes for the city people, and staying in their good books, brings along the bitter game of power that is invisible but prevalent in many ways. As Pankaj and his junior later go to bring tea, there is a reversal of power structure as we see him dominating the junior actor. Occupying roles and positions and placing people who have experience on a pedestal that automatically establishes a feeling of inferiority creates a bubble that can put a novice into disdain. Mishra makes such small observations about the field and people who claim to be the purist occupants, adding to the feeling of isolation for outsiders.
In many parts, “Dhuin” works for the honest character study of the protagonist caught in a web of stark realities stopping him from fulfilling his dream, but it could have been much more than this. It starts to feel jarring and rushes to an end when there is still potential to build upon the story. Achal Mishra’s compelling storytelling keeps the momentum afloat in the entirety of runtime with the submerged performances of the actors. It doesn’t reach close to where “Gamak Ghar” managed to, and it remains an incomplete exploration of the untapped territory. Mishra has an eye of a maker that is like a beam of light rummaging through the dark; his aesthetics help in making sense of the world, where it’s nearly impossible to reach with the old styles of filmmaking. “Dhuin” is a stone thrown just in that direction, and it manages to create ripples yet ceases to grow into something bigger.