Abyakto (2020) traces a relationship marred by a failure in communication. Director Arjunn Dutta takes an essential spoke of a subject, doesn’t say anything quite new but uses a remarkably fresh treatment to deliver an ambient, richly moody cinematic experience. It’s a story of homecoming, revisiting wounds and resentments and a frail bond between a mother and son.
Indra (played by Anubhav Kanjilal) comes home to Kolkata to settle property matters, with great hesitation. He is wary because it means to him, a confrontation and conversation with his mother, who he has shirked abundantly because of episodes that have scarred him, caused bad blood between them and somehow created a relentless misunderstanding and a stasis in trust. Sathi ( Arpita Chatterjee) wants to envelop him but is kept at bay and is subject to an almost arrogant dismissal. We are allowed an opening sequence from his childhood that hints at a key abandonment and parental negligence that led to Indra’s current spite for his mother. It does enable us tap into Indra’s headspace and help us gather some intelligence on why he behaves as coldly as he does, but there is also more. Arjunn has written Indra as a fragile man, he’s broken and is looking for closure though he explicitly is averse to sorting it out, much against his wife, Aditi’s (Kheya Chattopadhyay) recurring insistence. He’s still recuperating from his childhood trauma, flashes of which are meted out to us at deliberate distances from each other in the narrative. He is described as an escapist and he seems to have inherited that from his father, Kaushik (Anirban Ghosh).
While it’s refreshing to see a male character being so vulnerable and unsure and haunted, the effect is lesser than the intended primarily because the acting isn’t particularly depthful. Anubhav isn’t able to adequately mine the pain of his condition through his dialogue delivery. He sobs fumes and bristles, to unsuccessful empathetic engagement. He falters especially because he’s up against a formidably elegant Arpita who freezes the screen whenever she is in it. He’s solid in select scenes which require him not to mutter any line, only communicate with his eyes, which he does fairly well, his face a symbol of angst and unsettled emotion.
Sathi isn’t a breakthrough mother character but the way in which Arjunn charts her unfulfilled ambitions and doesn’t strain on it too much makes her a contemporary creation, not a lazy retread of a mother-unto-son though there is plenty of that which constitutes her element being. Through her musical performances (at home) which are cut in and intervened into, Arjunn emphasizes her as somebody who couldn’t pour her creative potential out due to adulterated interjections. She sings and she seems to open up her vestiges out, transmitting a poignant power, but midway her house help needs her instructions. Arjunn understands this key truth which defines every ambitious mother’s circumstance. Thankfully, he refrains from straying to the usual stereotypical narrative direction that would have had Sathi pursue her aspirations vigorously, instead he chooses to talk about those mothers who weren’t and aren’t so unflappable with their dreams and poses a question: what happens to them?
Besides this equation, there is Rudra (played by an unsurprisingly excellent Adil Hussain), English tutor of Indra, who also has deep connections to the family in a sense he’s almost an insider. He strikes the viewer as Kaushik’s confidant in a way Sathi never could be. We wonder at this strange relation that ties the four characters symbiotically. Sathi is near-perennially annoyed with Rudra, and she accuses him of furthering and encouraging habits and inclinations of Indra which she finds problematic to be in young boys. We suspect a tinge of maternal envy stoked by the fact Indra’s closer to Rudra and his father, but is held back from that degree of intimacy with his mother. To disclose more details about this would border on spoiling the viewing experience, but when Arjunn springs the supposed surprise later on, it feels a tad predictable and doesn’t require the most clever spectator top have figured it all out. Yet, the film produces a swell of emotion when we do arrive at this juncture.
Abyakto rests on a slim premise, and it’s aware of that. Many situations are not probed into detail and it does tend to get repetitive. The film is itself besotted with how fascinating its female lead is. Arjunn offers us sparing glimpses of her interrupted brilliance. We are told of her mood swings and her gifted abilities and it is demonstrated too, in two sequences, Kandale Tumi More and the Alaap, which creates a trance-like spell. Jayati Chakraborty summons her extraordinary talent and it’s nothing short of breathtaking. Sathi is hot headed one moment, immensely loving the other. The strength of the film lies with its languid beauty and the inherent simplicity but often the viewer feels the lyrical tonality isn’t tethered skillfully to great writing. The dialogues are uninspired and the track between Indra and his wife feels jarringly manufactured, maybe because the actress playing the wife is strictly irksome. There is an elaborate, overkill voice over that delineates in full-fledged detail the answers the viewer seeks and makes way for a resolution, but it does convey the veracity of the situation to moving effect.
I heard muffled sobs in the theatre and it’s impossible not to tear up. Criticism can be levied at the manner in which the central vector of the film is padded and expounded on, which feels like a betrayal of the otherwise restrained quality of the film. The intent is admirable but the approach is fairly unimaginative. What remains unmitigated is the great tenderness and empathy with which Arjunn narrates, and Arpita’s magnificently subtle performance. There is a tired resilience which she brings. She deep dives into your heart and stays there. Arpita’s quiet dignity and intensively sensitive portrayal is the beating heart of the film. Her mere presence lends certain otherwise flimsily staged, unremarkable scenes an unearned gravity. Watch her in the scenes which have her looking to her son for expectation but are consistently denied and turned away, her face falls and her whole being almost crumples back, crestfallen. It’s a sharply precise, wholly accurate entry point of understanding into her character.
Yes, one can complain about the poorly written character of Rudra, on that ground as well, the film does take a beating, but this is an important, timely film, in the aspect Arjunn has broached and delved into; he addresses the grossly overlooked position and predicament of a woman trapped in such relationships. I did have issues with the somewhat valorization and idealized gaze Arjunn employs to invoke great regard for Sathi’s endurance and perseverance, almost as if it should be an example to be followed. Yes, she navigates her dilemma with grace but should that be something to look up to? Shouldn’t that be foisted on anyone?
Yet, the fact that the film has attempted to initiate this conversation and that it does so without any showy trapping calls for celebration.