What is left unsaid in Niharika: In The Mist and what is embedded in its silences convey as much meaning as what is verbalised. That is the most striking aspect of writer-director Indrasis Acharya’s fourth narrative feature, an emotionally affecting portrait of a young woman striving to tide over the scars of a painful childhood.
The serenity of the film’s setting – a two-storeyed house in a little hamlet – offers a sharp contrast to the storm raging in the heart and mind of the female protagonist as she labours to put the broken pieces of her life together while striving to wrest control of her destiny.
Suppressed emotions and ineffable, inchoate urges haunt the girl, who, dealing with the toxic fallout of growing up in a toxic Kolkata household of a comatose grandfather, an abusive father, a predatory uncle and several suffering women, is adrift between the life she has left behind and a future she hopes to forge for herself. Needless to say, her journey isn’t an easy one.
Niharika: In The Mist, which arrives in Indian multiplexes after playing at international festivals in Adelaide, Hanoi and Kerala, presents a ruminative, unhurried, intricate dissection of a wounded, distressed mind overrun by confusion, fear and guilt. The sensitive story touches upon gender, incest, sexual desire and the fear of feelings that are difficult to express, let alone deal with.
Adapted from Bhoy (Fear), a story written by veteran litterateur Sanjib Chattopadhyay, the two-hour Bengali-language drama unfolds mainly in and around an abode in a remote, arid landscape. A home away from home is posited as a psychological anchor for the heroine. She sees the house in the middle of nowhere – it gives the film its title – as a means of escape from the cares of the world.
Deepa (Anuradha Mukherjee, who Hindi movie audiences might remember from independent films like Panchlait and Halahal) navigates the unnerving reverberations of an unhappy childhood, a consequent (if fortuitous) dislocation and a quest for a stable mooring.
She relocates to the home of her maternal uncle Akash (Shilajit Majumdar) and his wife (Mallika Mazumdar) to continue her studies after the untimely death of her mother, who was the only person in the world she could trust. Her new residence is a refuge from the world of greed, illicit relationships and unwanted advances that she endured as a teen. But will the lesions on her psyche heal as quickly as she and her amiable uncle, a doctor, hope they will?
Besides its sophisticated technical attributes, what lends Niharika: In The Mist a distinct timbre and sets it apart from cliche-ridden dramas about women wronged is the completely non-judgmental, undemonstrative manner in which it depicts Deepa’s response to her paralysing anguish and the bearing that it has on how she engages with the world, especially with the father figure she looks up to.
The story is entirely told from Deepa’s standpoint. The film plays off the turmoil of the principal character and the reactions of the people she grows close to against the serenity of the isolated location. The trilling of birds, the chirping of crickets, the babbling of the river that runs through the place and the whooshing of the wind are the sounds that define the expanse around the house.
The tranquil air is similarly contrasted in the earlier portions of the film with the cacophony of the discordant voices and drunken shrieks in her Kolkata home. The noise still rings in Deepa’s ears and frequently barges into her dreams. She understandably dreads the stillness of the night, which brings in its wake overwhelming, unsettling melancholy.
The diurnal and the nocturnal impact Deepa divergently – a fact that her uncle articulates in that many words as he sits by a stream with his niece wondering what it is that still bothers the girl when night falls. The parallel between how terrible things were at night in her Kolkata home and how she still feels when darkness descends on her uncle’s Simultala house is clear and unmistakable.
However, there is little in the film (save perhaps a couple of the scenes that are staged to drive home the horrors of Deepa’s childhood) that is sought to be presented in unsubtle, overwrought means. The realities of the torment that Deepa faced in her formative years continue to cast a shadow on her subsequent and essential aspiration to live on her own terms.
A terrace separates Deepa’s room from that of her uncle and aunt. At night, it resembles a chasm across which the doctor and his niece seek to communicate, with words often failing them and thoughts pushing them to the brink of a zone they would rather skirt around. Niharika: In The Mist is a film that is uncompromising in terms of its dramatic restraint.
The film has a small gallery of characters. Besides her dead mother, Deepa bonds with two other women – her aunt and a caregiver, Mandira (Rohini Chatterjee), who is hired to look after her grandfather after he suffers a cerebral attack. There is solace in the relationships that develop between Deepa and the two, but neither pans out a way that can promise deliverance.
And apart from her uncle, a sounding board that has its own chinks, the doctor’s assistant Rangan (Anindya Sengupta), a young man fixated on what is best for him in the long run, floats into Deepa’s life only to open another less than salutary chapter.
The change of seasons tangentially serves to highlight Deepa’s delicate psychological state. Fearful of what life has in store for her, she journeys in a fateful arc from doubt and trepidation towards self-realisation and repose. Niharika: In the Mist approximates, through its controlled craft and storytelling, the very unpredictable nature of Deepa’s progress.
The film is wonderfully well lensed by Santanu De (who has shot all of Acharya’s features to date), embellished with a minimalist musical score by Joy Sarkar (who uses only the sounds of string instruments) and edited by Lubdhak Chatterjee with an acute sense of the ebbs and flows of the seasons and the vagaries of life.
Nothing in the film, however, stands out more than Anuradha Mukherjee’s absolutely magnificent performance. In her first lead role in a Bengali film, the actress fully repays the trust of the director. She is remarkably mellow and staggeringly steady as the fragile yet tenacious Deepa.
In the equally demanding role of the uncle who seeks to guide Deepa out of her trough even as he inches dangerously close to losing his own way, Shilajit Majumdar delivers a performance of tremendous and unaffected artistry.
Niharika: In The Mist, informed with insights into the often-unfathomable paradoxes of life, is a gem that is artful and yet feels spontaneous.
Anuradha Mukherjee, Shilajit Majumdar, Mallika Mazumdar, Anindya Sengupta and Rohini Chatterjee