The emergence of the heart of Mithilanchal as a cinematic setting has been talismanic for parallel filmmaking in India. Achal Mishra’s devastating Dhuin (2022) was the first definitive example of it. Given the moniker Darbhanga New Wave (whose inevitable gravity it does well to justify), this quiet revolution has now birthed Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar (On Both Sides of the Pond), yet another unassuming blow to the consciousness.
Set in the wake of the pandemic, Parth Saurabh’s film centres on Priyanka (Tanaya Jha Khan) and Sumit (Abhinav Jha), lovers in their early-20s who have eloped to a rundown small town where the only things not constantly coming apart are the many still and silent water bodies and imposing and unending fort walls. The couple take up shelter in a damp and decrepit boys’ hostel room overlooking the local degree college, away from the more respectable-sounding Professor Colony where her family resides.
The resulting union also means that now the role of the provider and the man of the house is Sumit’s. That he is a naïve and entitled wastrel who has neither sense of accountability for his actions nor any situational awareness, is a different matter. He whiles his time away reconnecting with his bosom buddy Nihal, the more refined and self-assured Priyanka has her time spent convincing her old-fashioned father to accept her choice of a life partner.
Elopement is a grand notion — an act of transgression and grandeur at once. Sociologically, it’s an exercise in choice, especially in a society where cases of inter-caste marriages and elopement (reported often as abduction) have been on the rise of late. In the world of this film, the passion and impulse of being runaway rebels are fashioned into a slow and painful subversion of the idea of love. Saurabh takes this act of rebellion and defiance and drops it into the still pond of disillusionment (of which there seems to be no dearth in Darbhanga). This is a realm sterile enough to choke any grand notion into inexistence.
That’s probably why when the film begins, the passion that drove the rebellion has probably already run its course — it’s in fact festering now. Sumit and Priyanka’s hostel room is no love nest. Like two pre-teens who’ve run away from home in a Wes Anderson world, they’re lost, ordering in every day and purchasing odd household articles. When she points out the sheer poverty of their circumstances one day, he churlishly replies that he sees nothing wrong with the way the household is being run. In the background, the camera pans across the hammer and sickle painted over a seepage-afflicted wall. She nags, he lights up a cigarette. She talks about money matters, he storms out and starts crying.
In an interview, the director said that Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar was about the deepening biases during the pandemic and the institution of love collapsing under the weight of traditional gender roles. In the timeline that this film chooses, it is hard to justify the glue that seems to bind these individuals in the first place. What did either of them do to attract the other and convince them to stay? In their first conversation in the film, the more polished Priyanka, who does seem to have an understanding of the mechanics necessary to run a family and household, has to remind Sumit that he’s supposed to take applying for jobs more seriously.
Sumit, for his part, seems far too preoccupied with fruitless socialising and numbing the senses. When he’s done doing that for the day, he comes home to gaslight his partner, even though he most likely doesn’t realise it. He overestimates himself when he assures her of his foolproof plans for starting a business and when he forces his friend to allow him to mortgage his motorcycle. With his artless portrayal of a clueless young man in a crisis-stricken world, Jha again cements his credentials as a solid performer.
Great art often interrogates masculinity and that is one of the lights in which this film can be read. For me, it is the director’s way of saying, ‘no man knows what he’s doing — we’re all just winging it’. Once you accept that the protagonists of this story were once in love with each other, it becomes easier to process the frustration that Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar breeds in the mind. Coming from what is clearly an underprivileged background (he might even belong to a lower caste) and with a modicum of academic talent that the plot hints at — the only way for a youngster like Sumit is to learn to bluff and charm his way out of situations. Confronted with the mating dance and the need to establish a family, he has convinced his partner for the thrill and adventure of elopement. But when the pandemic and the lockdown strike, he comes undone.
Through Priya’s character, Saurabh conducts a meditatively surreal inquiry of choices. By opting to undertake this adventure, she has agreed to break out of the matrix. This mundane small-town world where she is caged of her own volition, was never meant to be hers. The uncertainty bred by the fact that her relationship is plummeting and the economic fragility that was a direct consequence of the pandemic, is writ large on her face. In addition to cinematographer Pradeep Vignavelu casting the character in various frames of loneliness and claustrophobia, a particularly unsettling interlude sees her host a close friend at the hostel room that is her abode. This other Priyanka could be said to be her unhappily married alter ego who made different choices than herself and which she despairingly weighs against her own. In the only moment of intimacy between Priyanka and Sumit in the film, her desperate attempts to arouse herself and Sumit is her double-checking the validity of her choices. It is her embarking on an urgent search for reason in her actions. She feels lost in the present, dissociated from the past.
The 4:3 aspect ratio, another stylistic choice in the so-called Darbhanga New Wave, allows the viewer a more effortless access into the characters’ minds, be it when Sumit casually bullies Nihal into giving up his motorcycle, or in the final moments of the film, when the lead pair share a vulnerable moment on a bridge when their relationship has all but crumbled. The result is a more immediate perception of the characters’ reality — a departure from the familiar comfort of the cinematic distance.
Pokhar Ke Dunu Paar is now streaming on MUBI.