Culture & Society

A Couple Caged In Freedom

‘Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar’ is a thunderous cinéma vérité delineating reality as it is. It’s too real. Every frame admires the conversation and the conversation reciprocates with ambience.

Screengrab from ‘Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar’
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I saw the film, ‘Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar’ ―which is set in the city of Darbhanga, Bihar― for the third time. Gazing at it, I felt a drift of association and dissociation. Through this repetition, I sensed a sensation that I’ve been holding for months or years, which I would like to call an insatiable appetite, an invincible urge to feel something so familiar that I can only gorge there — in the city of Darbhanga.

As I recall, this appetite, this invincible urge, first got introduced to me by the frame of Achal Mishra’s film (‘Gamak Ghar’, ‘Dhuin’), and, interesting enough, he also produced it. 

The film’s English title is ‘On Either Side Of The Pond’, which implicitly suggests that one of the characters, Priyanka (Tanaya Khan Jha), ventures to choose either her father or her lover, who lives on either side of the pond. With two recurring dream-like scenes, we see her struggle with choosing. To whom she chooses, that’s the plot, that’s the theme.

Parth Saurabh, the director of this film, told The Hindu that this film is an apology letter to his wife because when she needed him the most, he was not there.

‘Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar’ —I call it cinematic bliss— is a thunderous cinéma vérité delineating reality as it is. It’s too real — their way of eating, their accent, their skin, their behaviour, their lives. Every frame admires the conversation. And the conversation reciprocates with ambience. Edible items (“Tamatar khaoge? Tamatar kaun khaata hai?”) and beverages are shown as a metaphor to hint at financial scarcity, angst, and discomfort. In the whole film, their faces look sullen. It’s a SAD (seasonal affective disorder) situation.

Let me start from the end. We hear a sound of something moving on the puzzled pavement, and in a moment, we discover that something is a trolley that is drifting with the help of Priyanka, whom we have been watching for the last one and a half hours. We watch her from a high angle (call it God’s eye), describing her action as publicly trivial.

She finally supplants her psyche to take action, the action that might be painful in a short period of time, but after some months it provides the comfort she was familiarised with earlier while living with her parents —she walks away from the relationship that’s not serving her basic needs— an intent to live, to grow, to nurture each other. One walk away doesn’t provide her or us with the sustainability that we don’t have to walk away other times. Life is a collection of walks away.

When we meet her for the first time, the air has been flinging on her face. She stops for a bit and comes out of the freedom-filled cage to brush her teeth. It’s an awkward moment, at least with the way she resuscitated herself after taking water on her toothbrush. The man bathing himself, holding a gamchha on his waist, makes himself, her, and us uncomfortable.

Two years ago, when Priyanka and Sumit (Abhinav Jha) took refuge in each other by eloping away from the city of Darbhanga to metropolitan New Delhi, it must have seemed to them as freedom from the caged life. But after two years, a pandemic (Covid) hits, and that freedom transforms itself into a cage with only one pit open, which leads to the end of that freedom, which is caging them. They have returned to Darbhanga again.

We weren’t shown in the film if love ever existed between them; we were rather informed that two years ago they flew with each other to pursue love, and now they are struggling to make it work. Firstly, they eloped with each other from society; now they are eloping away from each other to society. It seems that when nobody chases them, they are left with no choice but to make a banal effort to be in love. Is chasing necessary to make love more successful?

The struggle that the couple has been grappling with is a universal yet entirely intimate one— the desire to belong to each other through fulfilling their basic needs of living on the planet Earth. In short, what we call—Roti, Kapda Aur Makan.

And to get all of these, they need a fixed source of income. And there they are, failing. The lover boy, Sumit, has been failing regularly to meet their needs. It’s not that he is not trying to find a job, but the inertia takes hold over him. The inertia that she’ll be there, the inertial that they both will be there despite all of the malaise this relationship produces.

The structure of society trials everyone, whether we live with conformity or with a sense of rebelliousness—it is shown in the film. When they both flew, it must be seen as a transgression, an infringement of tradition. But then that transgression of tradition takes the form of tradition in itself — continuous bantering, passive-aggressive behaviour, and regular avoidance of each other. They transform themselves into a cliché arrange-marriage couple.

In a scene, we, the audience, get training on how to inflict pain without causing it. It’s a lesson on the passive way to mock your most beloved person. To be violent in a way that we don’t have to evaluate it as violence! If we see that scene as a netizen, we might term it a “me and who” moment. But underneath, it’s a retaliatory act by Meetthu, aka Priyanka — a cue for Sumit: why are you ruining us?

In the very scene, she is drunk, witty and bity, hushy and sushy; a kind of benevolent demon has taken hold over her, nursing her to harm him, Sumit, in a way that we find he is being loved. This demonic character, this witchiness, is the result of Sumit’s effort to not make an effort anymore. She pleasantly utters, “Do you think you are the only rowdy? I’m rowdier than you.” She reverses the role and takes control of this prolonged, sad relationship by shunning and pruning him.

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Her laugh seems like a mock. Her touch appears to be a shove into his wound. It seems there has been a deliberate attempt by the director to provide Sumit with a cut on the chest. It serves as a metaphor for lacerations. So that Priyanka could press his existence by lacerating that wound that symbolises Sumit’s psyche.

And then she slaps him with a laugh. He retaliates with a nervous smile. She slaps one more time. How tempted he is to be in intimacy! She throws him off the bed. It seems he doesn’t know how to make an effort anymore. In the podcast ‘Mind Your Buffalo’, hosted by Ravikant Kisana, aka Buffalo Intellectual, Itisha Nagar, a psychologist and an assistant professor, talked about man’s situation in a relationship break-up — and it epitomises the whole argument for us. Paraphrasing her, she says, “For men, loss of loyalty (break-up) is not just the loss of an intimate other, but the loss of intimacy itself.” It summarises his situation too. For Sumit, retaliation seems like an intended attempt to get deserted.

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In the penultimate scene, which I call a scene of utmost effort to be there in that relationship, it’s an attempt to shun the numbness to evoke the flames of love once again that don’t exist anymore. The scene is like this — they are wrapped in each other. She kisses him; it’s on a continuum. It’s a poke from Priyanka to feel something, to sense if ashes of love exist there, but then she pauses, stares at his face for some moments, kisses him again, and then stops. She finds nothing, and later in the next scene, she proposes that it would be better if she chooses her father over him.

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In the last scene, when she is leaving him with a sullen face, he makes an effort to save the relationship by sticking with her, begging her to be there. It’s a scene of superlative struggle and ardent vulnerability. But after all of the effort, they both stop. Still. They are on the road. Parallel to each other, looking on one side—and her trolley advocating separation is in between them.

And then a car passes through the frame, suggesting some sort of return. It seems Priyanka is going to change her decision and be with Sumit. Then she turns and looks toward Sumit. They are both facing each other now. Credits surface on the screen with the background sound of a moving train, suggesting they both return to Delhi.

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