All around me are people behaving wildly, a character says in Assamese director Rima Das’s Tora’s Husband. I feel desperate and useless, another man says. Filmed at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021, Das’s fourth feature explores the visible and invisible effects of the global pandemic on a town in Assam.

A minutely observed portrait of anguish and resilience, Tora’s Husband takes its place among recent independent films that confront the human cost of the unprecedented health crisis. “Nearly everyone has gone through some kind of loss or suffering,” Das told from Assam, where she is already working on her next feature.

After an international premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival (the third for Das), Tora’s Husband will be screened at the upcoming Busan International Festival. Das burst onto the film festival circuit with her second feature, Village Rockstars, in 2017. While Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing (2018) were coming-of-age stories, Tora’s Husband is an examination of masculinity under pressure.

The pandemic is seen through the increasingly troubled eyes of Jaan, who runs a restaurant and bakery in Chhaygaon. The health emergency upends Jaan’s life. His debts pile up. His drinking strains his relationship with his wife. He develops a pandemic paunch. The family dog goes missing.

Jaan is hardly alone in his troubles. From disturbed staffers to prickly customers, anxious buddies to indigent locals, Jaan sees the pandemic fraying his community and makes every effort to stay grounded in a world seemingly spinning out of control.

Tora’s Husband (2022). Courtesy Flying River Films.

The film is dedicated to Das’s father, who died in October 2020, a few months after she started shooting Tora’s Husband. After the first lockdown lifted and transport resumed, Das travelled back to Assam from Mumbai, where she lives part of the year.

“I was on a break after Bulbul Can Sing, I was looking to do something different,” Das said. “The situation wasn’t good anywhere. I felt I should do my part. In the beginning, the film was more of a family drama. When I started going out more and seeing things, the story started changing.” The inchoate and yet palpable anxiety that resulted from Covid-19 – a fog of the soul – percolated into Das’s screenplay, resulting in a portrayal of a man struggling to come up with an appropriate response to a crisis not of his making.

The film’s title acknowledges Jaan’s partner in suffering. “Jaan is both a hero and not a hero,” Das observed. “The story is also about the shadow of patriarchy, how Jaan’s wife Tora is ignored.”

As with Village Rockstar and Bulbul Can Sing, Das fulfills multiple duties on her latest movie. Das is a one-woman army, directing, writing, producing, shooting and editing her films.

Village Rockstars (2017).

Das’s debut feature Man with the Binoculars (2016) had a professional cinematographer and editor. But for her subsequent projects, the self-taught filmmaker took charge of these functions.

I felt a bit restricted and didn’t get the freedom I wanted,” Das explained. Handling the camera and editing herself allowed her to get the most of the non-professional actors, loosely structured narratives and an observational storytelling style she prefers.

“I like to move with my characters, and that is sometimes difficult with another person is involved,” Das said. “I do work with professionals on my documentaries, but when I am shooting for my production house, I like to work at my own convenience. I like the spontaneity of shooting whenever I feel like it. I have greater control. The editing becomes easier too, since I know what I have shot and why.”

But multitasking isn’t without drawbacks, Das acknowledged. “It is tiring, and since I am not professionally trained, I do feel limited,” she said. “But it’s logistically easier, apart from being financially better for me as a producer. I can take my own risks and my own decisions.”

There’s further continuity between Tora’s Husband and Das’s previous two films: a non-professional cast plucked out of her family network.

When you watch Abhijit Das, who plays Jaan, you cannot tell that he has not faced a camera before. “He used to run a business and is now into farming,” Das said. “I really liked him. When I stared working with him, he surprised me. He is very focused and quite honest. He is expressive even when he isn’t delivering dialogue. I always enjoy it when actors have a strong presence and express themselves through their eyes, their faces and their body language.”

Bulbul Can Sing (2018).

The other principal actors – Tarali Kalita Das as Tora, and Bhuman Bhargav Das and Purbanchali Das as her children – are also drawn from the filmmaker’s extended family. The joys of working with non-actors outweighs the challenges of guiding them through emotionally demanding scenes, Das observed.

“There are so many talented people all around – the challenge is to get them to act,” she said. “Everybody is good and eager to do something. This eagerness makes it so much easier and real.”

Das herself pursued an acting career before she embarked on filmmaking. She spent half of the 2000s in Mumbai, auditioning for roles.

This was a time when opportunities for actors from the North East were limited (the situation has improved only marginally). “Representation was an issue, but I also felt that I wasn’t good enough at the time,” Das recalled. “I took acting too seriously, and I didn’t know how to handle the pressure. I felt that I didn’t fit into any role. Perhaps my timing wasn’t right. I was also dealing with cultural differences. I salute all the actors from the North East who are doing well in Mumbai. You need a lot of courage to work in this city.”

While Das had a role in her directorial debut, she has transferred her love for acting onto the people she selects and moulds into her finely etched characters.

“Once I got into filmmaking, the desire for acting disappeared,” Das said. “It became difficult to be both an actor and a director. I don’t feel it necessary to be on the screen anymore. My characters are more important to me, and have overpowered my desire to act. So I nurture my actors instead.”

Rima Das at the premiere of Tora’s Husband at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Also read:

‘Village Rockstars’ film review: This unsentimental underdog story is a visual poem about Assam

‘Wanted it to be subtle, impactful’: Rima Das on young love and friendship in ‘Bulbul Can Sing’