(India, 85 min.)
Dir. Saurav Rai
Director Saurav Rai invites audiences to celebrate slow cinema with his debut feature Nimtoh aka Invitation. This neorealist hybrid drama, which closes Images Festival’s 2020 online edition, offers a quietly contemplative slice of life fable. Audiences should put the phone away and give the film their undivided attention. Invitation is a quietly mysterious domestic drama.
Rai’s film features a remarkable performance from ten-year-old a Pravesh Gurung as Tashi, who joins a cast of predominantly non-professional actors, including the director himself and members of his family, in transporting audiences to a remote mountain village where tense rivalries percolate outside the frame. The power of the film resides not so much in the action between the characters, but in the subtle elements one discerns while exploring the full scope of the boy’s surroundings.
Tashi and his grandmother (Chandra Kumari Rai) spend most of the film guarding the cardamom fields of their wealthy landlord. The job looks as boring as it sounds, particularly for a child of Tashi’s age. Rai films the boy and his granny as they sit and tend to the fields in which little threat arises aside from the animals who run in to nosh on some plants. They crack some gunshots at the four-legged dine-and-dashers, but that’s about as exciting as Tashi’s days tend to be. All that remains is silence in which to consider his position.
Even at ten years old, Tashi recognizes the unfair power dynamic that exists between himself and his grandma and their landlord. Rai provides numerous languid long takes in which the deep focus cinematography by Appu Prabhakar observes the domestic setting in striking tableaus. The landlord is a lazy oaf who can’t be bothered to make his own tea or change out of a t-shirt for his daughter’s wedding. There’s nary a hint of kindness, as noted when Tashi sneaks into the living room to watch television—his bright smile radiating inches from the camera—and the landlord changes the channel for no obvious reason beyond spite.
This trick with the remote is one of few power exchanges one sees within the frame. Most of the action in Invitation occurs off screen. Rai offers no backstory for Tashi’s circumstances and leaves the incidents that escalate the tension in between the cuts that divide the scenes. The focus is on the consequences that Tashi and his grandmother experience, and not the deeds that invite them. The landlord can rebound from his situation, but Tashi, presumably, cannot.
As the story unfolds, the family hosts a wedding for the landlord’s son (played by Rai). He tasks Tashi with delivering invitations to all the surrounding villages. But, ever perceptive, Tashi notes the snub for him and his grandmother. The young boy crashes the party when he should be guarding the cardamom.
Rai’s distinctive voice arises through the naturalism of the film’s power for observation. The performances from the cast lend the story truth and authenticity, as Invitation perceives the nuances of power and control that permeate the happiest of events and the most docile of domestic settings. The sedate (but never taxing) pace of Invitation provides an immersive experience of the Darjeeling setting, but, more importantly, it affords a window into the mind of a young boy as he tries to take control of his own destiny. This memorably composed and thoughtful film straddles the terrain between fiction and non-fiction to introduce a refreshing voice to the field.
Invitation streams tonight for FREE at ImagesFestival.com at 8:30pm.