Gaurav Madan’s Barah X Barah is a study of Varanasi’s economy of death through the worried eyes of a long-time resident. Sooraj runs “Sharma Death Studio”. Sooraj (Gyanendra Tripathi) photographs corpses in Varanasi right before they are cremated. But this final link in the journey from life to death fears his own professional demise.

The culprit, naturally, is the cellphone with built-in camera. One of Sooraj’s peers gives up, switching to a job in tourism. But Sooraj soldiers on, guided by as much by confusion as a sense of moral obligation.

Barah X Barah attempts to show that Sooraj’s downturn has to do with the transformation of Varanasi itself. Even as protestors march against the demolition of ancient structures, Sooraj listlessly counts his dwindling income and wonders what to do next.

A related narrative thread revolves around Sooraj’s authoritarian father (Harish Khanna) who says little but orders his son about. This laconic patriarch equally represents the old order, and the question of whether Sooraj is better off without him hangs over their dynamic.

The passage of time and advances in technology have been cruel to the movie. The Hindi-language movie was premiered at film festivals in 2021 but has been released in cinemas only now. The plot itself is set before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s return to power for a second term.

Cellphones have become even smarter since then – we can imagine short-form videos being taken of bodies before they are turned to ash. The movie has another problem with time. The pacing is overly ponderous, resulting in scenes that are stretched out without gaining very much in terms of information or mood. The desired elegiac tone is missing despite talk of death, decline and escape.

However, there are a bunch of quiet and well-crafted moments, as well as a vivid sense of Varanasi’s unique layout doubling up as a kind of open-air cage for Sooraj and his wife (Bhumika Dube). Gyanendra Tripathi’s immersion in Sooraj’s character creates empathy for a man torn between fighting and fleeing. Bhumika Dube, as Sooraj’s wife, is a strong presence, making a bigger impact than Geetika Vidya Ohlyan as Sooraj’s sister.

Barah X Barah (2024).