In a captivating attempt to capture a non-pretentious and poignant tale of an Axomia middle class family set in the midst of a raging pandemic in Chhaygaon, Assam, the latest offering from home-grown auteur Rima Das- Tora’s Husband is a thought-provoking and emotionally charged cinematic experience. Through the worlds of Tora and Jaan, Rima offers a raw and earthy essence of a difficult time that we all endured, but it doesn’t just stop at that. The film delves into deeper intricacies of class, gender, family dynamics and existentialism at large.
As one enters into Tora and Jaan’s worlds, the power of Rima’s storytelling is a strong testament not just about a time of crisis, but also about the everyday banalities of life. It questions the unspoken riddles of life, of the male and the female genders, of masculinities and femininities, of the roles one is expected to ‘perform’, of the complexities of relationships, and of the worlds we create and the multiverse we exist in.
Rima subverts her own edit style by bringing in quicker cut-points compared to her previous slow-burns. Not only does the film focus on the unflinching portrayal of the pandemic’s impact on individuals belonging to different socio-economic backgrounds, but what also categorically stands out is its unapologetic focus on the gender disparities that often become glaringly evident. The filmmaker masterfully navigates the intersection of class and gender through the characters, peeling the layers of our own biases, expectations, and the intricate nuances of domestic and public life during the pandemic. While Jaan- the man of the household, is busy dealing with the financial crises of the pandemic, Tora- the wife relegated to the domestic space, finds no respite from keeping up the household.
While he has to take his son out for sports coaching, she has to tell bedtime stories to the daughter. While he gets to pursue football and drinking for leisure, she is only awarded a little threading as ‘me-time’. When Tora along with the female neighbour goes searching for her drunk husband in the middle of the night, they are questioned by the night patrol. Although the film does not bash any particular gender, it explores how everyone is a net resultant of the expected gender norms.
Protagonist Jaan is often confronted by his neighbours on not being able to keep his mother with him. They tell him – ‘A mother should be with her son. Questions are being raised.’ In one of the film’s most brilliant scenes, Jaan tries to talk to his mother, but only in vain. In another hard hitting scene, Jaan is seen crying in the shower. Finally, the man breaks.
But it has to be a private moment. No one can witness this. One gets reminded of the son breaking down while bathing the father in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011). Men resort to showers. Here, Jaan is alone, pnly allowing the supply water to wash away the salt. The colour saturation has transitioned from warm to cold in this recurring motif of the man in the shower. Tora too has her private moments- in gardening, in learning cycling, in conversations with friends and acquaintances where she vents out about Jaan’s drinking issue.
The patriarchy is much more layered than what is obvious which makes the narrative even stronger. Through the worlds of Tora and Jaan, the audience also gets a peek into their own realities, another high-point of the film that makes it all the more relatable. A scene where Jaan is seen taking care of the kids and managing the household when Tora is at the government health facility as she battles with Covid is another good juxtaposition to the everyday moments of Tora’s life in the first half of the film where the mundaneness and monotony almost gets to her. In another scene where Jaan visits a family to find back his pet dog, his deep-rooted inherent sexism makes him shut the woman of the house up in order to talk with her husband. A fight between Jaan and Tora towards the end also hints at subdued gas-lighting.
Rima’s cinematography is only getting better. She makes Chhaygaon look no less than a location in an A24 indie. If America has Chloe Zhao, Mexico has Tatiana Huezo and Lebanon has Nadine Labaki, India has Rima Das rising with the indie female gaze. The sound design of Tora’s Husband is a huge improvement in the maker’s filmography. The well-recorded sound catapults the film to the intimacy of a Kore-eda film (say a Still Walking). The family bonding scenes give it a Shoplifters like feel, while a Kiarostami touch is evident in the wide landscapes.
The humor running throughout the length is deeply rooted in the Assamese cultural fabric and much of it is brought by the lead Abhijit Das. Das emerges as a fantastic non-actor with the potential of a full-grown actor. Much like Mira (Nair), Rima too is an able ringmaster of non-actors. Moloya Goswami, who does a cameo as Jaan’s mother is a sweet surprise in the film with her natural poise for the art.
While length isn’t a problem, redundancy is. The film seems to repeat itself again and again. The point gets conveyed much before it thinks it has. Tora breaking her husband’s bottle of wine is thoughtful, but quite a miss on the ‘mise en scène’ front. A commentary on the class divide through the treatment of the household help post her covid phase is a lazily done one, if not unnecessary. Sharper editing looks necessary in many parts. But one can’t hold all these against the otherwise wholesomeness of the film, its simplicity and unfiltered emotional trajectory. This docu-fiction holds up a mirror to the pandemic that has just gone by. We have had plenty of losses. But still we are here. In this huge eventful world, the Das family, too, holds up together much like the grandfather’s sapling growing amidst their lost plot of land.