Direted by Indrasis Acaharya, the 2022 Bengali-language Indian film Niharika (In the Mist) tells the story of a woman, Deepa (Anuradha Mukherjee), who discovers her voice after spending years in a bleak and harsh environment. The filmmaker’s tender and gentle approach exhibits a degree of frankness while approaching the tale’s sexual undercurrent. On a formal level, Niharika lyrically captures the quandary of a woman torn between rural and modern life. In this interview, Indrasis talks about his aesthetic/philosophical preferences and working with collaborators.
Dipankar Sarkar: Niharika depicts the tale of a woman’s emotional journey as she navigates through her fractured relationships. So, what was the unique aspect you discovered in the story that allowed you to turn it into a feature film?
Indrasis Acharya: In 2013, I read a novel written by Sanjib Chattopadhay, titled “Bhoy” (Fear), and was drawn to the story’s landscape and its relevance to our time. I immediately purchased the rights from the writer. Although there is a significant deviation from the storyline due to cinematic purposes, the theme remains the main focus. After my third feature film, Parcel (2018), my attention was on the theme of women’s empowerment through the gender identity crisis and how it spreads through our society in the form of hypocrisy. Personally, living in a deserted land without modern gadgets and social media was the source of my interest. The serene landscape and nature of serene tranquilly were the main draws for making this film. The nature of human interaction has always been my favorite theme. I want to live that life in a barren land with the least human interaction, at least for a few days if not longer. When my team found such a place in the Shimultala and Giridih areas of rural Bihar, half the job was done, and we decided to go ahead with the project. But making the film was a very difficult proposition because I didn’t have any producers. So, we asked our friends, families and acquaintances for help, and now, after a two-year struggle and effort, we can see the film in theaters. We produced the film under the banner of Pastel Entertainment Media Private Ltd., in association with Adverb Movies and 15 other producers and financiers.
DS: Compared to your other films, Niharika is much more subtle and restrained, in terms of treatment.
IA: Niharika exposes the very complicated nuances of human emotions. The thin lines between affection, love, gender attraction and sexuality are somehow interrelated in this film. We rarely express our thoughts because we are bound by social structures and norms. But does our mind follow the same path? Yes, for some, but I’m sure there are some who will say no. Deepa was not raised according to traditional social norms. She had, however, been her own person since childhood. This was the impetus for her concept of boundless love. Affection gives rise to love, and love generates desire, which remains and subsides in our mind until we execute and gain the freedom of expression of our desire. Our ability to express our desire and love for our loved ones is influenced by the situation, nature and a lack of human interaction. Deepa was forced to be involved in her first ever relationship due to the serenity of the landscape and her natural instincts, which drove her to become involved in a seemingly abnormal incestuous relationship. But finally, Deepa succumbed to normal societal norms and got married to Rangan. But what was her final destiny? She empowered herself and found the way to live a life that elevated her to live with nature, where she was nurtured, and finally found herself sheltered.
DS: Why did you shoot Niharika across various seasons?
IA: As filming of Niharika went on in installments, we decided to make it happen seasonally. Summer, monsoon and winter are three distinct seasons that each have their own charm. The vast, empty landscape under the wide lenses symbolizes our existence as well and was one of the most prominent features of the film. It added an extra dimension to the mood of the film, as per the season.
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DS: Deepa experiences many difficulties and setbacks in her life as a teenager and later as a married woman in Kolkata. She learns about herself and finds comfort in her life at her maternal uncle’s house in rural Bengal, far from the hustle and bustle. Is she the sort of person stuck in emotional stasis and cannot negotiate with the restraints of society?
IA: Deepa was born and raised in a seemingly traditional and hypocritical family. She never experienced peace of mind due to the dark and abusive nature of her family. She was perplexed in her search for peace and happiness and found solace wherever she got a little affection. She was unsure about what was right and wrong and struggled with her desire for different genders. She was in a dilemma, and that aggravated her irritation towards herself for deviating from the norms that we used to follow. In her maternal uncle’s house, she found happiness. Her life exposed her to the better aspects — a thoughtful mind and a developing body. There were no constraints when she was by herself. But when she accepted the traditional societal norm, her life was buried beneath a mountain of conflicts and guilts.
DS: Deepa engaged in physical closeness with Mandira and Rangan. But these relationships did not endure. But over the years, with Akash, she has calmly accepted the ups and downs of life without letting carnal desires take over. Is that the reason why their platonic companionship survived the test of time?
IA: No relationship ever lasted for her. She empowered herself to live alone, armed with all of her experiences and intelligence. On the other hand, Akash’s traditional and orthodox thought process had completely enslaved him. He wanted to break the norm but was afraid of doing so. That is the reason why the relationship between Akash and Deepa has survived the test of time.
DS: Why is the character of Deepa vociferous while that of Akash is quiet and soft regarding the acceptance of their relationship?
IA: Desire is the source of greed, possibilities and the development of our emotional nature. Many sections of our society have marked it as taboo and kept it under strict conditions. As Deepa was growing up, she was driven to the brink of despair by her unquenchable desire for the fulfillment of her desires and the anxiety of not being able to fulfill her limited options. It was a biological, natural and normal emotional response. Deepa’s growing desire was exacerbated further by the area’s loneliness and lifelessness, which were represented by its barren beauty. When options are limited and human interactions are limited, emotions and desires play a major role in your development and thought process.
On the other hand, Akash had the same feeling, but as he was with his wife, it was a dilemma for him of getting the “right” or “wrong” answer, and conflict arose at that point. There is no definite answer, and there is a thin line between desire and getting into the act in reality, which may embrace you in the guilt of consciousness. Deepa even perceived it as the wrong desire. She was also on a guilt trip, but finally she decided to break and come out of it, but Akash could not. Education, intelligence, experience and an individual’s approach define the acceptance of physical and mental desire towards one another, and it becomes difficult when physical attraction takes over the mind. In Niharika, this complex conflict led both Deepa and Akash to embark on a guilt trip about their character and identity.
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DS: In one of the scenes that takes place in the forest, Akash tells Deepa that she is suppressing her emotions, and so she should visit a psychiatrist. But later in the film, we learn that Akash was hiding his affection for her as well.
IA: That is an interesting fact of life. Mind, body and soul respond universally, and the processed output is different for each of us. Some people agree, while others disagree. Here, Akash was also attracted to Deepa but failed to break the rule. He took a voyeuristic approach to fulfilling his desire, pretending to be unperturbed in spite of the inner turbulence within him. His wife, Keya, also responded to the loneliness and emptiness of the nature around her. They all responded in their own ways.
DS: It rains at the start and the end of Niharika. What role does it play in the story?
IA: Rain was not in the script, but we got rain almost every day during our second schedule of the shoot. We had to postpone the entire one-day event that was scheduled to be done at Giridh, outdoors. So, we used the time to shoot the rain with Deepa, and we finally found it to be an extremely powerful part of the film. It looked like the cycle of life that resembles nature’s own cycle. Rain always adds an extra dimension to a film; the visuals and sound combined help me to create some extraordinarily ordinary moments.
DS: Santanu Dey has shot all four of your films. What does he consistently bring to the table?
IA: Santanu De has phenomenal knowledge about cinema, but he prefers to remain silent most of the time. We have worked on four films: Bilu Rakkhosh (2017), Pupa (2018) and Niharika (2022). As a result, we developed a mutually understood approach to lighting, treatment and a sense of crafting to create the perfect mood for our film. It’s very comfortable working with him and makes my job easier.
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DS: Niharika is your first collaboration with Lubdhak Chatterjee, an editor who is also a filmmaker. How did his participation help you to shape the film?
IA: Lubdhak has done an excellent job. Being an extremely sensible filmmaker, he is very diligent in his job. He didn’t use the script while editing; rather, he created the story out of his understanding, and the team liked it unanimously. It was his idea to use the rain as a metaphor in Deepa’s life.
DS: So far, how has the festival journey of Niharika been?
IA: The response to the film has been brilliant, and many are saying that this is my best work to date. It is such a heartwarming feeling that some people in Australia, Hanoi and Kerala have watched all of my films and are waiting for Niharika. I am very happy to see the reaction of the audience after each and every screening. They stood up, gave a standing ovation and talked at length during the Q&A and also after the show. The film had its world premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival and its Asian premiere at the Hanoi International Film Festival. The national premiere took place at the International Film Festival of Kerala in 2022, and it will be screened at the Pune International Film Festival on February 5th and 8th, 2023. There were top-tier festivals interested in the film, but due to not having its world premiere available, they dropped it from the list. But we believe that Niharika‘s festival journey is not yet complete, as we are getting responses from programmers and curators for the film.
DS: What are your plans for the release and distribution of Niharika?
IA: It is again a difficult task for us to accumulate funds and distribute the film. Every filmmaker’s dream is to circulate his or her film as widely as possible. Niharika makes a completely independent effort… we’ll try to release the film as soon as possible, and we’re all working on that. Probably in the middle of this year. We are also looking for a good distributor to be associated with.
DS: Lastly, the four feature films that you have made have dealt with themes and narrative designs that do not imitate the conventional hyperboles of contemporary Bengali cinema. What keeps you motivated to continue making films with an authorial identity?
IA: I strongly believe in making films and finding your own signature of storytelling. It is extremely difficult to make such films in Bengal because a large portion of the audience constantly compares all the contemporary films with those of the great legends. Moreover, making independent films always puts you at risk of having fewer propagation opportunities with your target audience due to various parameters and limited support systems. Apart from this, we do not get releases on any kind of festive or good occasion like Pujo, winter vacation, Bengali New Year, etc. We need to find a time when there are few films released so that theaters can accommodate ours. It is also imperative to have a proper budget for marketing and promotion, which we do not have right now. All these might sound like excuses, but these are the facts. We need to believe in our own audience, and I am extremely lucky and grateful that our work has been noticed globally since my debut with Bilu Rakkhosh . There is no shortage of good audiences around the world, and we need to make them aware of the films. We make our films without resorting to any sort of gimmick, stars or anything that has an extra alluring capability to attract people. We do what our films require, but the situation is extremely tough and grim. There are numerous equations and ball games all around you, and you may become exhausted after clearing all the hurdles. But there is no option left except to create the perception that our film can also touch hearts like other great movies. Maybe there is a small audience, but I prefer quality over quantity. This is the major force behind our continuing conviction in our craft and treatment. People should watch different kinds of films with much more conviction and impartiality, ensuring the diversity of Bengali cinema by supporting the talented emerging filmmakers who dare to think differently. And different doesn’t mean it is boring or not understandable.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.