Renowned cinematographer Ranjan Palit’s second feature A Knock on the Door is as different as can be from his 180-minute elliptical directorial debut Lord of the Orphans.

In A Knock on the Door, which Palit called a “psycho-political thriller”, politically minded professors Hari (Adil Hussain) and Ramona (Amrita Chattopadhyay) are raided by government agents on their wedding anniversary at their home. Hari, and later Ramona, grow increasingly paranoid about everyone in their lives.

Is it a case of folie à deux? Or is something more sinister at play? The ensemble cast includes Imaad Shah, Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Nandita Das, Anupriya Goenka, Joseph D’Cruz and Shivendra Singh Dungarpur.

Written by Ritwik Sinha, A Knock on the Door consistently feels like a bad dream. Despite being shot in Kolkata, the film doesn’t have too many markers of the outside world except the mention of Covid-19 and the languages (Bengali, Hindi, English).

“I could make Lord of the Orphans abstract and surreal given its autobiographical nature, but I couldn’t play with the form much with this film as there was a risk that too much eccentricity could lead to the audience losing the film’s politics,” Palit told Scroll.

Ranjan Palit. Photo by Devarsi Ghosh.

Palit, whose cinematography credits include Vishal Bhardwaj’s 7 Khoon Maaf and Nandita Das’s Zwigato, raised Rs 60 lakhs to complete the film.

He shot A Knock on the Door in a single schedule in December 2021. The locations included his Gothic two-storeyed home in South Kolkata, which became Hari and Ramona’s residence, and the St Xavier’s College campus on Park Street.

Most of the movie is set indoors and in cramped spaces, creating claustrophobia and the sense of dwelling inside the mind. Banerjee, with whom Palit worked on Ghost Stories and the unreleased Freedom, composed the background score.

“I am playing with reality and hyperreality to show a mind that’s wavering.” Palit explained. “When something like a sudden government raid happens, other people around you might be in denial about the severity of the situation. It is easy to get paranoid.”

The 118-minute drama was premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Focus: The Shape of Things to Come? section, which attempts to understand India’s future under a Hindu Right-wing government. The programme includes Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, Avijit Mukul Kishore’s An Election Diary, Nandita Das’s Firaaq and Anurag Kashyap’s Chaar Chappalein.

Palit’s new film takes him back to the 1980s, when he became a member of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights during the course of shooting documentaries. When friends and acquaintances, such as professor Shoma Sen and activist Gautam Navalakha, were imprisoned in the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case in 2018, Palit was shaken.

“People active in the civil liberties movement and known to me were being picked up, arrested, not tried, and put into prison,” he said.

Then, in 2020, Delhi University professor Hany Babu too was arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case. “I thought if this is what is happening, I must make a film about it,” Palit said.

A Knock on the Door (2023).

The resolve got stronger during the first coronavirus-induced lockdown in 2020. Even as protests emerged against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, Palit noticed behavioural changes in friends and acquaintances.

“During the protests, and later, the lockdown, I got this vibe around me, from peer groups and WhatsApp groups, that this is not the time for dissent and we should stand by the government and support it,” Palit said. “It wasn’t just the Right-wing. The attitude had percolated down to everyday people as well.”

Palit sensed “people squealing on each other”, he added. “There was a lot of hate-mongering against Muslims. I had to leave my school WhatsApp group because of conflicts. Everyone was arguing that we have to be united under one party and one leader. This is how fascism begins. We become a watchdog society.”

He was also inspired by what was happening in Assam’s detention camps. “One day, people won’t be shot like Gauri Lankesh, but they might go missing? Everyone will become agents reporting on everyone else in a fascist society.”

There was another motivation for Palit to direct the movie.

“Many appreciated Lord of the Orphans but I know some asked behind my back if I could be able to make a straightforward narrative film,” he said. Well, nothing is really straight-forward in this Kafkaesque film.

Adil Hussain and Amrita Chattopadhyay in A Knock on the Door (2023). Courtesy Ranjan Palit.

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