It’s not surprising that the opening shots of Killa are a slow glide down a forest road, a diminutive figure sitting on the beach after sunset, and a young boy coming in from the rain. Nature registers with astonishing force in Avinash Arun’s film. It never just rains, it barrels down. Winds howl. Waves crash. And when the sun shines, the light is clear and touched by something other-worldly. It’s visually impressive, yet it also serves a higher purpose. In a film that’s so focused on childhood and memory, the fierceness of the elements prevents the narrative from slipping into sepia-tinted nostalgia.
Eleven-year-old Chinmay (Archit Deodhar) and his mother (Amruta Subhash) have just moved to a tiny seaside town in the Konkan region. His father died recently, and that’s obviously on his mind, but his biggest problem at the moment is adjusting to life in a small town (his mother requested a transfer from her government job in Pune because she thought the change would do them good). His school life gets off to a rough start: introducing him to the class, the teacher announces that he’s a scholarship-winner, an announcement that does nothing for his street cred. Still, he eventually falls in with charismatic, authoritative Yuvraj (Gaurish Gawade), class clown Bandya (Parth Bhalerao) and their gang.
Killa’s central scene—the clearest example of Arun pitting human drama against the backdrop of nature—takes place when the boys cycle down to an old fort. Chinmay has just beaten the highly competitive Yuvraj and the others in a race. While they’re fooling around, he wanders off to explore the fort. There’s a sudden storm, and he’s forced to take shelter. When he emerges, he realizes that the others have left him and gone. We see him screaming their names, but the wind is so strong we can’t hear the sound.
Was the abandonment intentional? Did Yuvraj have a hand in it? Or was it just bad luck that Chinmay disappeared from view? We’re never fully certain. At any rate, Chinmay reaches home, physically unharmed but emotionally dented. The betrayal seems to unlock the sadness and rage in this hitherto placid boy—he acts out, accuses his mother, who’s dealing with work troubles of her own. For a while, things are stormy. Then the seasons change. The sea becomes calmer. There’s a healing incident involving a drunkard and a boat trip. There are apologies all round. And there’s another upheaval, met with grace and acceptance.
Arun based this, his first film as a director, on childhood memories of living on the Konkan coast. His previous work has been as a cinematographer, and he took the decision—rare for directors—to shoot Killa himself. He has an eye for little details: a crab scuttling across the sand; the spiral of a staircase; a pencil box with compartments that pop out. Killa takes its cue from recent Marathi films about children (Shala, Vihir, Fandry) by resisting sentimentality and instead looking at childhood as a time of great uncertainty and flux. Yet, for all the turmoil, the film has charm to spare. The young cast is wonderful, especially Deodhar and the scene-stealing Bhalerao, and Tushar Paranjape and Upendra Sidhaye’s writing has a relaxed humour to it.
Even as a first-time director, Arun has the good sense not to push scenes into revealing their meaning. Early on, Chinmay and his mother visit a lighthouse, and a guide explains how its light guides ships home. Much later, Chinmay reads aloud a poem about a sailor surviving a storm and finds courage in the image of his mother. The film could have spelt things out at this point but Chinmay just smiles and says to his mom, “Deep, isn’t it?” It’s moments like these, which leaven emotion with humour, that make Killa such a pleasure to watch.
This review appeared in Mint.