Ashish Pant’s Uljhan sometimes resembles a scary movie – hardly surprising in a drama that explores the horrors of poverty in India.
Pant’s assured directorial debut chronicles a life-altering encounter between privilege and poverty, decency and amorality. As businessman Shirish and his pregnant wife Geeta tackle the consequences of grievously injuring a rickshaw puller, tension rends the air and disquiet thickens it. The predicament that confronts Shirish and Geeta – should they take responsibility for the accident or use their affluence to hide – threatens to destroy a carefully created image of domestic bliss.
The camera sinuously wraps itself around its characters. The background music is ominous. The tracking shots reveal what some of this movie’s inhabitants have cocooned themselves from – the social and economic divide that lies just beyond their doorstep and car windows, hiding in plain sight and ignored until it is inconvenient.
The setting is Lucknow, where Pant grew up and lived until he migrated to the United States several years ago. But Uljhan could be taking place anywhere in the world where chasms divide the rich and the poor.
“The idea of crossing boundaries is one of the key motifs,” Pant explained in a phone interview. “Are we negotiating this conflict or friction by constructing barriers, and is that sustainable?”
The story idea emerged from a childhood incident, of when Pant was seven and was being driven by his father to his grandmother’s house. The car struck a scooter, and although Pant’s father wasn’t at fault – the signal had turned green – the vehicle was surrounded by angry passersby, Pant recalled.
From this memory flowed the idea of examining the fraught relationship between the classes. Uljhan explores this reality through repeated motifs of doors and windows, thresholds and invisible boundaries and gates and barriers which, when breached, bring the characters uncomfortably close, Pant pointed out.
Pant’s screenplay had been in development since 2017. The movie was eventually filmed in 2019. After a premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (March 31-April 10), Uljhan will be shown at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (May 20-27).
While Shirish seeks to ignore the accident, Geeta tries to mend matters without quite understanding the ramifications. “The car is a very interesting thing, it’s like a metallic socioeconomic bubble that floats through society,” the 50-year-old filmmaker told Scroll.in.
Geeta’s impending motherhood is another motif worked into the narrative. “To give birth, metaphorically and literally, requires an ability to be open, while to be in a bubble is the reverse of opening up,” Pant pointed out. “There is a line that Geeta has to cross, and she is struggling throughout.”
The inexorable toppling of the house of cards is elegantly conveyed by Pawel Kacprzak’s cinematography. In one of the film’s most visually expressive moments, Kacprzak’s tracking camera follows Geeta as she visits a public hospital to see how the accident victim is faring. Geeta’s long and eye-opening walk along the ward is, like elsewhere in the film, a moment that says a lot without a single word uttered.
Kacprzak joined the project purely by accident. Pant had been looking at the demonstration reels sent by Indian cinematographers on YouTube. He left his computer for a few minutes and when he returned, YouTube’s Autoplay feature, which uses an algorithm to suggest related videos, started playing the Polish technician’s demos. Pant saved the link and emailed Kacprzak when the film was ready to go into production.
“One of the ideas we discussed was, what has the director decided for the audience to be in this film?” said Pant, who teaches film in New York City as well as conducts acting workshops at the Herbert Berghof Studio. “What is my texture of engagement with the audience and how am I controlling this? Do you want audiences to be reflective, where they are looking at the proceedings slightly intellectually, or are you engaging them emotionally? We wanted the audience to be in the middle and ask, if this happened to me, what would I have done?”
There are very few point-of-view shots, Pant added. “The camera has its own life – it is as though we are sitting in the room with these people but we are neither of them. The camera movement is not motivated by the people, it doesn’t follow them but goes on its own exploration.”
Uljhan is steered by committed performances, including by Saloni Batra as Geeta and Vikas Kumar as Shirish. Nehpal Gautam plays Manoj, the rickshaw puller’s nephew who enters the couple’s lives as their driver.
Gautam, a National School of Drama-trained actor, has previously appeared in the television show The Office and the web series Pataal Lok. “It was very hard to cast for Manoj – I didn’t want someone who would play the classic Bollywood driver, and I even flirted with getting a non-actor,” Pant recalled.
Gautam was perfect for the role except for one problem – he had to take driving lessons.
Batra had previously played one of the leads in co-producer Kartikeya Narayan Singh’s Soni, directed by Ivan Ayr. “When you look at Saloni, you know she is thinking but you don’t know what,” Pant said. Batra has “mystery and enigma” and the suggestion of “reserve and elegance and a lot of unspoken material”, which made her ideal to play Geeta, he added.
Vikas Kumar, the actor from Hamid and Aarya, resembled Shirish in his striving manner and enthusiasm, Pant said. “I wanted someone who showed sincere effort in whatever they were trying to do,” Pant said. “I wanted boy-like sincerity in a man.”
Vikas Kumar’s command over Hindi and its variations – he is also a leading dialect coach for Hindi films – made him well-suited to play Shirish. “Language shows us how society is stratified,” Pant said. Class mediates how the characters in Uljhan communicate – Manoj speaks Avadhi, Shirish moves easily between Avadhi and Hindi, while Geeta converses in Hindi and English.
A further source of tension is the difference between the earthy and pragmatic Shirish and the wealthier and refined Geeta. The movie doesn’t pass judgement on Shirish, who makes questionable decisions to preserve his hard-earned status.
“I didn’t want to take any sides,” Pant explained. “Shirish’s struggles give us insight into why he is a bit rough and appears to lacks empathy. His worldview is justified from where he sits. The dynamic of there being a class structure within the marriage was critical for me.” The movie’s title is translated in English as The Knot – the element that unites Shirish and Geeta but also threatens to unravel when disaster strikes.