“Rukh”… A slow-burn domestic mystery that comes together in the head but remains remote

Posted on October 27, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

Ever since Citizen Kane, many a filmmaker has used the dining table as a stage for domestic strife. Atanu Mukherjee’s version sees a glum Divakar (Manoj Bajpayee) nibbling at his food. His wife, Nandini (Smita Tambe), looks glummer. There’s strife, all right — we sense it, but we don’t see it yet. The reason will come later — the whole film is a series of carefully timed revelations — but for now, all Divakar talks about is their son, Dhruv (Adarsh Gourav), who’s away at boarding school. Father and son haven’t spoken in a while. Divakar tells Nandini, “You told him I was busy, no?”

It’s a loaded question. It makes us think of a father who’s so busy with work that he has no time for his family. (But doesn’t want to be thought badly of.) Or maybe a father who chooses to be at work because he doesn’t want to be with his family — and the mother is expected to be the negotiator. (Again, because he doesn’t want to be thought badly of.) But it’s something else.

In Rukh, it’s always something else. Note, for instance, how Nandini’s mother, after serving food, doesn’t join them. That’s another revelation in waiting — there’s strife there, too. But Rukh only seems like a domestic drama. It’s actually a domestic mystery — and it gets going when Divakar dies soon after, when his car collides with a truck. The accident occurs off-screen. The film isn’t interested in screeching tyres and smashed metal. It unspools largely in silence, with snatches of a low-key Amit Trivedi score. It tries to capture the inside of a mind, Dhruv’s mind, as he comes to grips with what happened, and then begins to wonder about the how and why.

Wrapped around this slow-burn mystery is a slow-burn coming-of-age movie. Dhruv (slowly) finds out not only how his father died (accident? murder?), but also the kind of man his father was. Our parents seem so prefab, sometimes, and they’re so defined by their persona of “father” and “mother” that it’s quite something when we find out things that make them seem like mere “man” and “woman,” stumbling through life like us, almost as cluelessly. Dhruv seems surprised that his mother works. Or that she now lives with her mother. Were the parents protecting the son, not letting him worry about what was happening back home? Or had communication broken down to such an extent that even they barely knew about each other’s lives (forget telling the son)?

We get snatches of answers. We get flashes from the past that tie into the present — like the shot of father (then) and son (now) framed exactly the same way while taking a shower. Some of the echoes are less obvious. Dhruv gets into a scrap at school, hurts a friend and flees. Divakar, later, lectures him about why he shouldn’t have run away — but we later see that Divakar has run away too, rather than face the consequences of a scrap at work, with his partner, Robin (Kumud Mishra).

The first time we see Robin, he smiles at Dhruv, remarking how much the boy has grown up. It sounds like something people say unthinkingly, almost reflexively, in this kind of situation — but later we realise that Robin was more than just a business associate, and that his smile upon seeing Dhruv may have been genuine.

The actors are very good at sorting through all this ambiguity. Kumud Mishra shows us a man who isn’t evil exactly, but who, owing to a series of wrong choices (and political events, like the ban on cow slaughter), is forced to do some very bad things. Smita Tambe never lets on that she knows more than the character seems to — something that has a payoff at the end. Adarsh Gourav, as the Angry Young Boy, freezes his face into a sullen mask — expressiveness (and the ability to be easily read) doesn’t come easily in this family. And Manoj Bajpayee is possibly peerless at suggesting internal injury, a soul in the process of breaking down. He seems to be getting gaunter by the day, and this feeds the performance — what’s eating away at his mind seems to be eating away his body too.

Seems. It’s a word you keep using throughout this film that offers no cathartic certainties. It all comes together in the head (somewhat vaguely, I’ll admit), but it also remains remote. An early scene shows Divakar getting dressed in front of a mirror. The camera begins to zoom in, as though creeping in on him from behind, but stops at a point — as though to say, with this man and his secrets, we can get this far and no further. But when applied throughout, this micro-calibrated pace begins to look less like it’s saying something, more like an art-house affectation.

Plus, the whole mystery angle involving Robin is too… ordinary. Maybe that was the point, that life’s unsolved riddles don’t always take the shape of serpentine, Holmesian cases that come together with a slap on the forehead. But in a film already so muted, I kept wishing for some snap.

A gun shows up in a scene and foreshadows its second appearance a little too tidily. A game of chess is abandoned midway (the king, subsequently, is plucked from the board) — again, too tidy. But the rest of the film is a mess, in a good way. The people are a mess. The situations are a mess. We keep coming back to Divakar’s advice to Dhruv about sticking it out and not escaping. That’s what the boy does. He realises he has to man up. The last scene is a beauty. It occurs in an under-construction building, which is so fitting for someone who’s still piecing himself together. It’s closure of one kind. It’s also a new beginning.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi