CHENNAI: It can be fascinating when a filmmaker surprises us by transcending genres. While Indian Director Gurvinder Singh told us in his debut 2011 feature “Alms for a Blind Horse” (which premiered at Venice) about the struggles of a village against land grabs and ruthless industrialization, his second outing in 2015, “The Fourth Direction,” took Cannes by storm.
The story is set after Operation Blue Star (when the Indian military stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out militants), and examines the dilemma of a people caught between the excesses of government forces and rebels.
In his latest foray into cinema, “Bitter Chestnut” (“Khanaur”), which had its world premiere at the 24th Busan International Film Festival, Singh completely changes track. This time, he takes us to the tranquil environs of the Himalayas, to a small but idyllic town called Bir. There, 17-year-old Kishan (Kishan Katwal) works in a little cafe run by an elderly woman from Kerala, played by Monisha Mukundan.
She, like some others, have left the hustle and bustle of city life for peace and quiet. The tourists who stop by at Bir (a center for paragliding) are her only source of diversion, maybe distraction. Her motherly instincts are etched sharply when we see her relationship with Kishan, who has left behind his family in Baragraan, many miles away.
Kishan is torn between his desire to explore new frontiers, a fresh lifestyle with a job in the city, and the demand of his family to take up its traditional profession of carpentry. He cannot decide, his dreams to move away clashing with his own insecurities of a life he has no clue about.
He watches how guests at the cafe seem distraught and disgruntled with the modern, urban existence. He contrasts this with his own life, amidst a people who have learnt to live with a multitude of cultures and in perfect harmony with nature.
In 100 minutes, Singh explores a giant of an idea — the conflict between tradition and modernism — by using non-professionals. Katwal actually works in the cafe, his parents are his own, and Mukundan lives in Bir. It could not have been easy to direct such a group to narrate a story that tugs at your heart.
For all those used to Hollywood cinema’s pace, Singh’s latest outing may seem stretched and ponderous, but “Bitter Chestnut” hides a spirited message.