An artist from Kolkata travels to the Jharia coal mine in Jharkhand to pick up sounds for an audio installation. Shiva’s recording equipment creates a barrier between him and the people he meets. But he finds it hard to remain a fly on the wall – just like viewers might be unable to resist diving into the world of Whispers of Fire and Water.

Lubdhak Chatterjee’s feature debut has been selected for the International Competition section at the International Film Festival of Kerala (December 8-15). Chatterjee’s immersive movie has the kind of ravishing visuals, keen sound design, and poetic editing rhythm that make it a big-screen treat.

Early on in the Hindi-language movie, Shiva (Sagnik Mukherjee) is at a remove from the world he wants to cram into his boom mic. Shiva walks through minefields where fires burn incessantly., heating up the ground.

Soot fills the horizon and settles on people and houses. Shiva wonders why the workers won’t talk to him. Are they afraid, perhaps? Wary of this outsider who is wandering about without permission?

Whispers of Fire and Water (2023). Courtesy Little Lamb Films/NIV Art Movies.

An encounter with a police officer, filmed to chilling effect over an extended take in Shiva’s hotel room, is one of the hints that Shiva has entered a minefield. Amidst talk of unexplained disappearances, the health concerns of the miners, and the lack of basic facilities for the villagers, the distance between Shiva and what he seeks to capture shrinks.

The 93-minute film has stunning compositions by cinematographer Kenneth Cyrus, which includes landscape shots of the brutal mine as well as the natural beauty that lies beyond it. In the villages near the mine, and in the adjoining forest, Shiva finds a completely different mood that soothes as well as unsettles him.

Whispers of Fire and Water (2023). Courtesy Little Lamb Films/NIV Art Movies.

The human intervention in nature is as starkly seen as it is heard. Sougata Banerjee’s bravura audio design combines location sounds with effects that transport viewers to the film’s locations. At the forest, a villager wondrously asks Shiva why people would come to an art gallery to listen to the sounds of nature.

The editing, by Lubhdak Chatterjee and Arjun Gourisaria, is another vital contributor towards creating a hypnotic, dream-like state. There are patches of disposable dialogue, but the film is at its most powerful when human speech gives way to sound. Whispers of Fire and Water invites us to see, hear, and think about what we are doing to nature, and what we gain and lose in the bargain.

Whispers of Fire and Water (2023).