Pariah (Riddhi Majumder, 2020)

As occasionally happens with me, a few years back I was sent a film to look at by someone I did not know. It was from India, passed along because someone there who had taken a workshop with me some time ago suggested I might be sympathetic and of some help. I looked, and whereas usually I might stop after a few minutes wondering why did this person send this to me, instead I was quickly hooked and watched to the end, with pleasure.

Pariah is a one-thread film, of a Kasper Hauser kind: a pilgrim’s progress in the world, in which its main character, the unnamed pariah, moves from basic survival to humiliation followed with further humiliation, a prisoner of the world around him. Initially in a forest, we find him foraging for food – bird eggs taken from nests. Nearing a village he encounters a child, a little girl. He chases her and enters her village. There is something ambiguous in this chase, an almost childlike innocence, but with undertones of possible other meanings: might he rape her?

Entering the ‘civilised’ world we hear a loudspeaker intoning in a cult-like manner a kind of mantra, and are introduced to an obnoxious satrap, a man full of himself receiving massages and showers from his minions who cower at his feet like whipped dogs. He lives in a palatial house, receiving visits from the villagers who beseech him for favours, and whom he treats with haughty disdain. We see men working in a well while the public announcement system speaks of a magic elixir, which binds the community together, a holy liquid.


The pariah, found sleeping in a hutch, is captured and brought to the village, and tormented by the people there. He is brought to the satrap, who has him chained to a wall, and then, seemingly influenced by a young sympathetic woman, shows mercy and releases him. The pariah then joins the satrap on a hunting party, where he causes a problem and is duly punished in consequence.

Hung on the wall again, he manages to escape while the satrap is abusing a young woman. Later, found in the night in the woods, he is brutally twice raped by the satrap and a partner, and left, semen soiled, on the forest floor. In the morning, he rises, like a wounded animal, and stumbles on, finally coming to a pond where he washes himself. Absolution. Moving on he comes across an old wise man, a guru, who plays music and dances, and he himself dances, seemingly now free and delirious in joy.

The villagers, though, return and round him up, and in a frenzy of dance and song go by torch light, leading him to a pyre where he is burned to death.

As a story this is simple, of a person raised outside society entering it – the innocent and the evil juxtaposed, the herd behaviour of the people bowing to suspect authority, the sway of cult beliefs governing society. But, as in music, in which the lyric is often simple and near useless on the sheet, but soars when made song, Riddhi’s poetry emerges in the cinematic qualities of the film in concert with its grim content. The rich images, beautifully conceived and shot; the sharp cinematic sense of when to move the camera and how, where to place it. And then the non-professional actors carrying their roles in a strangely Bressonian sense but the opposite, often in near iconic imagery. They stand as ‘models’ but emote as actors, shifting the terms of this film from a seeming ‘realism’ to a parable, a Bengali variant of Catholicism’s’ Stations of the Cross, except in this case there is no redemption, there is no resurrection, there is no hope.


Pariah, aesthetically stunning, and thematically grim, offers little solace outside its artistry. Which, I suppose is why thus far it has been bypassed in favour of less demanding works and ‘audience pleasers’, even in so-called ‘serious’ festival settings – which is a tragedy.

I have been to many festivals, and seen many truly bad films at them, especially ones by ‘name’ directors who seem to get a pass.

It would be for me a sad matter if Riddhi Majumder’s film were to be simply swept by in the vast river of cinematic junk which rushes by everyday, and that the failure of our cultural system were to put any kind of brake upon him. He is a person of transparently natural sensibilities for this medium, a born filmmaker. And from the evidence of this work, he is someone taking life and our place in the world seriously, and making work to address that. Perhaps this makes him a pariah in the sad corrupt world which much of the cinema circus represents.

(A personal note: as a consequence of this exchange, Riddhi and I became friends, and he invited me to stay in Kolkata, which I did a winter ago, for 5 months. I met his circle of friends, many involved in the making of Pariah. I will be returning this coming winter, with a few projects in mind, and thinking to gracefully exit filmmaking afterward I’ll leave my rather new Panasonic AGX350, a 4K camera, to Riddhi and his friends. And give a go at a funding effort for them as well.)


I Am Not The River Jhelum (Prabhash Chandra, 2022)

Beginning with a long, misty landscape image of a broad river, presumably the one of the title, the camera tilting ever so slowly down into the water’s surface ripples and dissolving slowly into the face of a young woman, I Am Not The River Jhelum discreetly announces what will follow. 

A hand-held walk through a cemetery is accompanied with a poetic voice-over, a voice-over which will occur recurrently. In a very fragmented sequence of cinematically poetic images, we are introduced to the young woman, her father, some relations. The young woman’s name is Afeefa. Slowly it is revealed the setting is Kashmir, a contested region of Northern India in the Himalaya. The characters wander, speaking of ordinary things – of school, work; the camera too wanders: empty streets under curfews, roadblocks. Gun fire and explosions burst on the soundtrack. Seeming documentary footage of military occupation and revolt recur. Two young men deliver class notes on a motorbike; a crazed man gesticulates and shouts on the street. Books burn in a phantasma of flames. Afeefa and her friend Shibu, walk in a night-time darkened street, sirens in the distance; they run as if chased/hiding. A woman washes her hair, sitting in a pool of theatrical light, taking instructions from a female director. Of such disparate elements writer/director Prabhash Chandra weaves his film.

I Am Not The River Jhelum

I imagine for people in India the politics of this work stand out more clearly, Kashmir being a hot-button topic there, though the pacing and ‘style’ of the film makes that less important – knowing the politics, the ‘story’. Rather in its diffuse indirection, the film establishes a tone, a mood. It sets up an ambience through which characters and events flow, like jetsam on a river, things catch our eye and attention, and drift away, to be replaced with other things. As in musical motifs, there are recurrences; we return to the same characters further downstream, their lives buffeted by events, swept up in politics large and small. The father, off-screen, is taken by police and tortured; a man who has been tortured, in another pool of theatrical lights, spasms and cries out. Men stand with political posters, facing the camera. Towards the film’s end a theatrical sequence with dancers occurs, asking where is Shibu? 

Afeefa’s father, while they are on a small boat, informs his daughter that he is sending her to Delhi for her higher education. Her face floats, as they do, down river, the houses on the riverbanks superimposed on her as she drifts away. She arrives in Delhi, into the home of her uncle, clearly well-off. From a car she sees political demonstrations. We are immersed in them. She then stands in their midst. Men stand with political placards. Police standby, making videos of the demonstrators. Afeefa has dinner with her uncle and his wife. She reads a book in bed, and then a poem is read, O Valley of Kashmir, by Jagan Nath Azad. An aerial shot above the clouds of Kashmir, mountains and valleys slipping by. An image of Afeefa, standing in a field, and then, another image, slowly turns taking a position akin to that which began the film, but rather than looking to the distance as at the start, she looks at the spectator.

I Am Not The River Jhelum

In much the same way as music or poetry or much of the visual arts, one cannot really speak or write about this work. They, like this film, live outside our language or our language’s capacity to describe them; that is what makes them what they are, and not a book or poem. This film while ‘speaking’ does so poetically; the ‘acting’ is not ‘realistic’ but rather akin to Bresson’s (or Costa’s) representing. The structure is more musical, with refrains and motifs, visual and aural, returning, echoing each other, like a fugue, shifting, building on the earlier ones. The pacing takes on a subtle incantatory quality, vaguely hypnotic. Its intention is not to didactically educate, but to suffuse the viewer with a sense of tragedy, of sorrow.

Cinematically one can feel hints of Bresson, Tarkovsky, Kiarostami, but these are rather muted (with the exception of the shot inside a bombed out building, clearly derived from Tarkovsky, though with a poetic voice-over that most clearly is not). Chandra has made a film which is distinctly his, though perhaps part of a broader global cinema which works in similar ways – with indirection, tonality, ‘feeling’ rather than plot or ‘story’ being the driving element. 

While addressing a very real political situation in India – and not only regarding Kashmir but a wider one with Modi and the present Hindi nationalist politics which seeks to de-secularise the politics, demonising the Muslim minority, and lifting Hindu religions into a state operation – Chandra does so poetically, if also directly, as with the shots of people holding up political placards.

I Am Not The River Jhelum

My question for the makers of these films (among which I would also consider myself) is for whom are these made? Given their often oblique styles and ways of ‘communicating’, one wonders, first, who will show them absent an obvious commercial motivation? And then, if shown, who will see them? My thought is, as with most socially/politically ‘engaged’ work, be it fiction or doc or essay-film, it is dominantly those who already think/feel the same as what they are seeing. And so what is the function? I have yet to resolve this for myself.


The following letter was written by Chandra and sent to Jon Jost (it is reprinted with the filmmaker’s permission): 

 I’m writing to you about a harrowing incident I experienced this Sunday in Pune. I was attending a screening of my film when a group of goons launched a violent attack. They were vehemently against the content of my film and have since initiated legal proceedings against me with the help of the police. They insisted on sharing a copy of the film with them, which somehow I didn’t.

The situation became even more perilous when they started searching for me at the Pune airport. Thankfully, in a moment of quick thinking, I decided to change my plans and made my way to Mumbai instead. Within a few hours, I managed to reach the Mumbai airport and from there, hastily travelled to Delhi.

The whole experience was terrifying, with the assailants’ relentless pursuit leaving me in constant fear for my safety. It’s disheartening to witness such hostility and aggression. The perpetrators behind this attack are part of a Hindutva mob that has consistently opposed work like my film. It’s a challenging time, to say the least.
I wanted to share this with you as a friend.

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