Naal tells the story of a simple village boy who sees the world in his innocent childlike way. He is the reassertion of the fundamental, incorruptible core that makes us human. A Silhouette Review by Subha Das Mollick.
Sudhakar Reddy’s debut film Naal has been announced as the recipient of “The best debut film of a director” at the 66th National Film Awards announced earlier this year. An alumnus of the Film & Television Institute of India, Sudhakar has already made a name for himself as the DOP of films like Deool, Dalam, Highway, Sairat, Vire di Wedding, Saand ki Aankh and many more films. Earlier he received a National Award for his short film Ek Akash.
In his feature film directorial debut, Sudhakar delves into his pastoral childhood spent in a village on the border of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Although the story does not have autobiographical strands, the ambience created by Sudhakar in his film has strong autobiographical resonances.
Viewers from diverse backgrounds connect to Naal for its simplicity and intimacy. For the present reviewer, Naal is strongly reminiscent of Apu Trilogy and the little protagonist Chaitu is a 21st Century incarnation of Apu.
A wisp of cotton hovers over the rugged terrain of western Maharashtra. A boy standing in the clear blue water below, grabs it as it floats down to him. Sheer magic. Magic hidden in the everyday realities of life that we take for granted. But the little boy Chaitu finds magic in the abundance of life around him – in the ant holes at his feet, in the honey dripping from the honeycomb overhead and in the chicks he releases from their cage every morning. Chaitu absorbs nourishment from these elements and leads a happy contented life with his parents and grandmother in a village by the side of a river.
Sudhakar Reddy’s camera takes us to the innocent world of Chaitu. Little things like going for ablution to the bushes with a boy slightly older than him, birth of a calf in his backyard, a game of hockey with make shift hockey sticks and the daily trip to school in the ‘tuk tuk’, form the pearls in the narrative string of Reddy’s debut film Naal.
Through his directorial debut, Sudhakar Reddy revisits his childhood days spent in a village on the border of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. The story he tells is simple. The narrative style he adopts is straightforward. His camera confidently captures the drama of everyday life. He effortlessly enters the mind of a eight year old and brings out the child’s ‘jigyasa’, his wide eyed exploration of the world around him, through fluid camera movements in sync with the nimble footed Chaitu, fluid editing in sync with the camera movements and through well crafted dialogues. The Marathi dialogues have been written by Nagraj Manjule, who also gives a mature performance as Chaitu’s father.
In Naal there is nothing over the top, nothing melodramatic, nothing ‘filmy’. The absence of a star cast has been more than made up by child actor Srinivas Pokale. Srinivas has effortlessly fitted into the pastoral setting and slipped into Chaitu’s skin with utmost confidence.
About 20 minutes into the film, a visitor enters Chaitu’s world. It is his maternal uncle from a nearby village. Chaitu warns his uncle, “Mama, wear your chappals. Lots of thorns ahead.” Uncle asks in return, “What about you? The thorns don’t prick you?” Chaitu replies, “Nah … the road knows me well.”
The camera hovering near the ground tracks the duo as the barefeet Chaitu and uncle with his chappals on, march towards Chaitu’s home. Chaitu is a son of the soil. His feet draw nourishment from the soil that nurtures him. Chaitu’s creator Sudhakar too is a son of the soil. Without having first hand, intimate knowledge about village life, Naal would not have been possible.
The story of Naal unfolds entirely from the six years old Chaitu’s perspective. Sitting in his class he draws the new born calf in his exercise book and gets thrown out of the class. Outside the class he takes a good look at his drawing and decides to name the new born calf “Chintu”.
Watching Chaitu enjoying a special relationship with his grandmother or sitting down with his books in the evening, watching his mother run after him in an attempt to put a morsel in his mouth, we are reminded of Apu in Nishchindipur. We become one with the world of Chaitu in pastoral Maharashtra, just the way we had entered the world of Apu in rural Bengal more than 60 years ago.
However, in Apu’s life, there was a constant hint of an outer world. The bioscopewallla came and gave glimpses of ‘Delhi ka durbar’ and ‘Kalkatte ki Kali’. The Jatra team acquainted Apu with larger than life mythical characters and finally the train with its metallic monstrous intrusion into the kash field came as a symbol of modernity. Chaitu’s world, on the other hand, is self contained, except a rickety TV blaring banalities from the city.
A narrative crystallises around the core of a crisis. A story becomes worth telling when the crisis is resolved. The crisis in Apu’s life was the constant battle with poverty. In Chaitu’s life, crisis comes from outside his self contained, idyllic world. It comes in the form of an information given to him in his ears by his maternal uncle. Chaitu is tormented by the information. His world is shaken. The familiar world suddenly presents itself with new meanings. He sees somebody crying on TV and asks his mother if she ever cries.
He asks his father who would be the true mother of the chicks that hatch from the eggs – the hen that laid the eggs or the hen that hatched the eggs. Chaitu’s father shoos him off, “Get out of here…stupid questions about crying hens.” Chaitu is tormented. He must get to the bottom of things. He must meet his ‘real mother’. But to fulfill his mission, he has to manipulate the world of adults.
In the process of his manipulative tactics, Chaitu encounters death – not once, but twice. First, the calf Chintu gets electrocuted by the wires set up in the jungle by the older boys and a couple of days after this tragedy, Chaitu loses his grandmother. On the way to his real mother’s village with his father and grandmother, Granny succumbs to the heat as Chaitu waits for the bus that would take him to his mother’s village. The bus leaves Chaitu behind. Chaitu and his father turn back with Granny’s lifeless body. Chaitu’s mission remains unfulfilled.
But suddenly, quite unexpectedly for Chaitu, a new opportunity presents itself. Chaitu overhears his real mother’s name. She is about to come to attend Granny’s funeral services. Chaitu runs to the river to take a bath and put on his new clothes. He buries the old clothes in the sand. A new phase is about to begin in Chaitu’s life.
What follows is an unparalleled sequence of poetic eloquence – an encounter that builds up through glances and looks – looks of expectation, looks of worry, a yearning to make eye contact and fleeting glances to avoid eye contact. Just as Chaitu never takes his eyes off his real mother, the camera never takes its eyes off Chaitu. Yet, the tension is built up through masterful editing. Shots of matching eyeline are juxtaposed to bring out the unspoken expectations and fears in the hearts of the three characters – Chaitu and his two mothers. Viewers get to know about the real mother only as much as Chaitu gets to know, except in the last shot of the sequence, when the camera stays with the mother in the bullock cart and Chaitu gradually gets farther and smaller. The camera catches a muted sigh given out by the mother, a sense of loss she has been secretly bearing for all these years for reasons unknown to us.
At the end of the film, the word ‘naal’ takes on many connotations. It is a reconnection of one’s umbilical cord with the nurturer – mother as nurturer and nature as nurturer. Without being preachy, through the eyes of Chaitu, the film connects its viewers to their true nurturer. As Chaitu gets rid of the kaleidoscope as a mere toy that creates illusive non existent patterns and cuddles up to his nurturer mother, we leave the hall in gratitude to the director for reconnecting us to the real world around us.
Shorn of exotic locales, star cast and intellectual pretensions, Naal tells the simple story of a simple village boy who sees the world in the convexity of a dew drop dangling from the blade of a grass and in his innocent childlike way, finds his own position in this world.
The influence of Ray in Reddy’s style is unmistakable, even though he has not been consciously influenced by Ray. The kaleidoscope as a leitmotif, the dream sequence, the bullock cart are strongly reminiscent of Ray’s oeuvre. But while Ray had to work hard to feel the pulse of rural India, Reddy had only to delve into his childhood days.
Before making Pather Panchali, Ray had to struggle hard to get his Apu. Reddy was gifted with Srinivas Pokale. Through his rendition of Chaitu, Apu gets a new life.
If Chaitu is the 21st Century incarnation of Apu, he is the reassertion of the fundamental, incorruptible core in our beings that makes us human.
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