Director Pushpendra Singh describes his beguiling second movie Ashwatthama as a dialogue with Spanish master Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Erice’s stunning allegory about a six-year-old girl in rural Spain during the early years of dictator Francisco Franco’s reign echoes through Ashwatthama – in the explorations of the nine-year-old central character; in the sequences in which reality and dreams are blurred; in the depiction of the evocative landscape; in the leisurely narrative style that allows for rich and complex insights into the experience of childhood.
“The Spirit of the Beehive was one film which has stayed with me, and I decided to have a dialogue with it in the film,” Singh said. “I have even dedicated the film to Victor Erice. Also, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Francios Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home? are some other films around children which came to my mind while writing the story.”
Ashwatthama is being screened at the Busan International Film Festival and in the Indian competition section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 12-18). Shot almost entirely in black-and-white monochrome with splashes of colour, the movie follows nine-year-old Ishvaku (Aryan Singh), who spends a winter with his relatives after his mother is killed in an attack by dacoits. The sensitive child is indelibly shaped by the characters he meets and the fields and hillside that lie beyond his house.
Singh, a Film and Television Institute of India graduate, made his debut with Lajwanti (2014), an adaptation of a Vijaydan Detha novel about a married woman’s mysterious encounters with a man and his pigeons. Ashwatthama is less allusive than Lajwanti, but shares a concern with exploring the intersections between reality, mythology, folk traditions, memory and imagination.
“I was always interested in how myth and religion drive our life in India and for that it was best that I looked at my own life – how it has shaped me, affected me,” Singh said. “Lajwanti was a dialogue with the folk aesthetic traditions of Rajasthan and Ashwatthama is more autobiographical and has elements of memory. I wanted a sense of once upon a time, a feeling of timelessness, a continuation of the past.”
The preponderance of haunting black-and-white images, which have been created by cinematographer Ravi Kiran Ayyagiri, is needed to evoke the feeling of being in an in-between world for Ishvaku, Singh said. “Colour disrupts that world and adds to the fears and imagination of the child – fears which today are as real as they were in the past,” he said.
Apart from the monochrome look, the locations help in supplying the quality of weightlessness to the story, which could be taking place any time between the present and the past. Singh shot the film in rural Agra on the border of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The place houses a complex of ancient Shiva temples and is a pilgrimage destination.
“A story is not only plot or a character but also a cultural history,” Singh said. “In my practice, understanding and including the artistic and cultural traditions of a locality excites me. I was born in the Chambal region and always felt that it has been stereotyped in our cinema. It also has a feeling of timelessness and fit well in the story.”
Ishvaku is one among numerous non-professional actors in Ashwatthama, all of whom give remarkably believable performances. Pushpendra Singh also appears in the film in one of the roles, as was also the case with Lajwanti. “The cast consists of all non-professionals except me,” he said. “I had finalised the location and a week before the shoot, I started observing children in the village where I was shooting. Aryan is my cousin’s son, but because I never visited the village in the last 10 years, I was unaware about him. During my observation, my eye would go towards him and I was convinced, he was right for the role.” An hour-long “ice-breaking workshop” with Ishavku and the other children who appear in the film helped in smoothing out the shoot.
The title tethers the film in the Mahabharata epic, and refers to the Kaurava warrior Drona’s son, who avenges his father’s death following Pandava treachery. Ashwatthama is condemned to wander through the ages, denied both redemption and death. The cursed mythological figure haunts Ishvaku’s imagination, since he has heard the story on numerous occasions from his mother, and in the larger narrative becomes a link between the boy’s experiences and a mythical past.
Singh’s influences might be from all over the world, and yet, Ashwatthama is a uniquely Indian fable, one that is rooted in local beliefs, religious traditions, and community practices. “I feel encouraged when people bring their local traditions to their story telling, it shows the diversity of stories and their traditions,” the filmmaker said. “I think the whole idea of a universal story propagated by commercial concerns has done more harm to story-telling traditions than anything else.”