Humankind’s never-ending quest for purpose and peace is depicted through a picturesque journey to the Himalayas in Dar Gai’s Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence, which was screened as part of the World Panorama section at the International Film Festival of India in Panaji, Goa.

Namdev Bhau, a 65-year-old driver, is fed up with the noise around him, be it Mumbai’s relentless traffic or his nagging wife. His search for quiet leads him to a place called the Silent Valley in Ladakh, which promises near-zero decibel levels. On his way there, he meets the talkative 12-year-old Aaliq (Aarya Dave), who too is on a mission – to find a mysterious red castle. The film traces how this chance meeting influences the character’s respective quests.

Namdev Bhau had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in October. After screenings at the BFI London Film Festival and the Mumbai Film Festival, it opened the Dharamsala Film Festival earlier this month.

Gai, a Ukrainian who has been working in India for seven years now, told that despite its title, the movie is equally about the precocious boy. “Aaliq is playing the game of reaching the red castle,” she said. “But it is not just reaching red castle but overcoming a sort of pain he has inside which he doesn’t even know about, which the audience will judge.”

Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence

Gai got the idea for the story during the post-production of her first feature film, Teen Aur Aadha (2017). “We had visited one hill in Maharashtra and it was very quiet there and at that time we were discussing that in Mumbai there’s not even one second without a honk,” Gai said. “So, what about the person who listens to these sounds from morning to night? And that’s how the story started.”

Gai found her protagonist in Namdev Gurav, who had worked as a driver with producer Dheer Momaya’s family for several years. For Aaliq’s character, Gai drew from her own childhood and also from what she had observed about India’s socio-cultural norms, including caste and gender discrimination. These themes fuse into Aaliq’s quest for the red castle, which initially plays out like a game, until a grim backstory is revealed.

“I love the idea of playing games, as in my childhood, I played a lot of games with my mother,” Gai said. “Till the age of 15, I actually believed that there are magical creatures that are helping me. And I still believe in it.”

A third key character is Ladakh. Gai had written the movie with Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti valley in mind, but budgetary concerns forced a rethink. “It took me at least one week to completely change my mind as I was stuck in Spiti,” she said. “It made me really depressed. At that time my producer said, ‘Open your eyes and find magic and beauty of this place.’ It took me couple of days and then I could feel the place.”

At its core, the film is about an internal and external journey, she said. “We always think that we will escape from our problems with a road trip but then we are running from ourselves,” she explained. “No matter how much you travel you always end up being with yourself. It is almost like running in circles, you think you are going somewhere, but you are coming back to yourself.”

Dar Gai.

Gai said her interest in philosophy, mythology and her fascination with the East drew her to India. But the perspective she strives for in her movies is that of one intimately familiar with the country. “It comes down to whether you feel the country or not. I really feel India,” she said. “I became a director here in India, spent seven years here. I feel the people around, listen to languages, and I think when you have empathy for something it just comes out that way.”

Gai moved to India after a long career in theatre in the Ukraine. She started out teaching theatre at The Scindia School in Gwalior and then taught screenwriting and film appreciation at Mumbai’s Whistling Woods International. It was there that she directed her first short film and showed it to fimmaker Anurag Kashyap, who gave her some tips on the camerawork. “I did it again and I realised that I can do a feature film on it and wrote the script accordingly,” she said. “It was a three long takes film about a house [in Mumbai] which tells three different stories in 50 years.” The resultant film, Teen Aur Aadha, travelled to more than 40 festivals and won 20 awards.

Gai is visibly pleased by the success of both these movies at various film festivals. “At Busan [South Korea] it was an incredible experience as after the screening [of Namdev Bhau], we got fan followers, who were making animations on these two characters,” she said.

Gai, who already has three more projects lined up, said she is obsessed with city life, which makes her way into all her films. “A city is an incredible creature,” she explained. “When you take a walk around the small lanes and look around the windows, you are observing people’s lives. Like if you are somewhere in Mexico and you will see a woman washing her clothes and shout to her children and that moment for me is capturing the existence of life which is so juicy, so interesting to observe. I love people and hearing their conversation.”