Assamese director Biswajit Bora didn’t think his latest movie would resonate beyond India. God on the Balcony explores an all-too-common Indian reality – poor infrastructure in rural areas that limits access to healthcare, steady incomes and quality education.
Yet, the film has travelled quite far. In the coming months, God on the Balcony is set to be shown at a few international festivals. Over the last year, it has been screened at the Kolkata International Film Festival – where Bora won the Best Director Award in the Indian Language Films category – and the International Film Festival of Kerala.
Perhaps the film’s wider acceptance has something to do with the cataclysmic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has exposed the gaps in health care in wealthy countries as well as less fortunate ones. In India, which is being hit by a catastrophic second wave of infections, leading to massive oxygen shortages, an unimaginable strain on hospitals and countless deaths, the image of Khagen, who carries his wife’s corpse for several kilometres, is particularly poignant.
Khagen is from Assam’s Majuli district. There are barely any roads to speak of and no bridge across the river that winds through Khagen’s village. And then there are the frequent encounters between humans and elephants.
Khagen’s wife Numali (Pranami Bora) is grievously injured in one such elephant attack. Khagen puts Numali on his new bicycle and pedals away to the nearest health centre several kilometres away. The centre is shut, and Numali dies during the night. When a hearse driver refuses to transport Numali back to the village, Khagen ties her corpse to his bicycle and, accompanied by his daughter (Porinandhi Jima Sultana), walks all the way back home.
The title refers to the chasm between the privileged and the disadvantaged. As Khagen’s daughter says, we live under the same sky, but why aren’t we equal?
The movie is based on a newspaper report about a similar incident from Odisha, Bora told Scroll.in. “The news disturbed me for a long time and I kept it inside my heart,” he said. Bora saw parallels between Odisha and rural Assam, where he was raised.
Once Khagen and his daughter begin their arduous trek, the vultures hover. A pair of scoop-hungry journalists descend on the bereaved family, while a politician lands up with promises to finally build the bridge that would have eased Khagen’s plight.
“People have been suffering here in different ways due to negligence and underdevelopment,” Bora observed. “They struggle to live despite being suffocated.”
Khagen, who initially appears to have made peace with his lot, finally explodes after his beloved wife’s death. Bora cast Harish Khanna, the renowned stage actor from Delhi, in the lead role, because of his ability to convey “calmness, pathos and the pauses in between the dialogue”. Khanna’s lines were dubbed by a local artist to get the accent right.
The movie hasn’t been seen in Assam, where Bora’s Bahniman (2016) was a commercial success. Since cinemas are shut in most parts of the country because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bora hopes to release the movie later in the year. Meanwhile, he has wrapped up another film titled Boomba, made in the Mising language and exploring education in rural Assam
The unrelenting footage of patients waiting to be admitted into hospitals, gasping for breath, and cremations have jolted Bora, as they have many in India.
“It is pathetic, I feel terrible for the people who are suffering,” he observed. “We are running after life, but we don’t where we are going.” Khagen’s tragic journey is a reminder of a harsh reality that existed before the current pandemic and will possibly outlive it.
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