Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Threshold: She's leaving home

Included in the India Story section at this year’s Mumbai Film Festival is a film that might not have grabbed your attention at first glance. The Threshold, after all, is not a title that suggests a whole lot of action. Neither does a plot précis: this is a two-character film in which a wife decides to leave her husband after decades together. Yet, when you walk out of The Threshold, you feel like you’ve seen something real and raw and honest, attributes which aren’t necessarily present in some of the more heralded Indian films of the festival.

“I don’t think we should keep such a thing from him.” The film opens with this line, spoken by Rinku (Neena Gupta) to her husband, Raj (Rajit Kapoor). The ‘him’ is their son, whom we never see: he’s got married the previous day in the couple’s Tirthan valley home, and has left along with the other guests. Sometime after that, Rinku has told her husband that she is leaving him.

You expect the film to tell you why she took this decision—to at least come up with a third-act revelation which puts you on either character’s side. Instead, director Pushan Kripalani undercuts the audience’s need for a revelation. Few explanations are given, and the most you can do is try and pick up clues from the couple’s fragmented, often inarticulate bickering. In one scene, Raj grabs at Rinku impatiently. His wildness in that instant, and her bowed, submissive body language, carry within them the possibility that he might have been somewhat more violent in the past with her. But you can’t be sure, and The Threshold isn’t telling.

Kripalani, whose first feature this is, has worked as a theatre professional (he’s one of the co-founders of the Industrial Theatre Company) and a cinematographer in the past. The Threshold began with an idea by Kausar Munir (also the film’s lyricist), after which Kripalani, writer Nihaarika Negi and the actors worked for months to create the characters from the ground up. One of the strengths of this Mike Leigh-like process is that Raj and Rinku really do seem like a couple who’ve been arguing for years. They switch from Punjabi to English to Hindi as they correct each other, tear up, snap and seethe. He calls her stupid, stubborn; she uses that quintessential north Indian epithet: nitthalla.

There are comparisons that can be made, not just to Leigh (the celebrated British director whose influence—acknowledged by Kripalani in a conversation I had with him—can be seen in the fade-to-black scene transitions) and Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight but to the master of toxic relationship films, Ingmar Bergman. The Threshold might be seen as a gentler Scenes from a Marriage, though Kripalani pointed out that there’s no specific debt owed to the Swedish director besides the fact that he grew up seeing his films, as any film buff might do.

There’s also the temptation to view this as an extension of Kripalani’s earlier work in theatre. It’s true that the purely visual moments in the film are brief and few: a disoriented Raj dunking himself in the freezing spring; Rinku observing half-amused, half-concerned her husband’s inability to make a decent omelette. Yet, even in the dialogue-heavy scenes, there’s little staginess. Kripalani shoots the film himself, eschewing flash; the shots are never distractingly beautiful, though God knows he has the right scenery for it. He also varies the movement within scenes, and the various degrees of stillness and fidgeting exhibited by the characters becomes expressive in itself.

“I was interested in the transmission of experience, not of information,” Kripalani told me when we spoke. This would certainly not have been possible without actors as fine as Kapoor and Gupta, who convey all the affection, exasperation and weary sync that can only come from decades of living together. Though the film is mostly them disagreeing, their concern for each other provides some of the most touching moments, such as when Raj helps his wife pack her suitcase for what might be the last time. When The Threshold ended, I felt a little pang that I hadn’t gotten to see these characters, both of whom I now felt attached to, in happier times.

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