Achal Mishra’s debut ‘The Village House’ is a visual masterpiece

The astonishing debut by an Indian filmmaker is richly rendered, deeply personal, and feels like home.

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You’re rushing to catch up with your cousins, a straggler who took too long to eat, to wash up after eating, and an uncle calls you over to him. “Do you recognize me?” he asks with a wide smile on his face, knowing your answer before the wheels in your child’s brain begin turning, before your eyes tell your mind after scanning his face that, though it’s familiar, a name for it cannot be found. It’s a test you’re too shy to fail, but that you fail anyway because nothing transitory — certainly nothing to do with the boring adult world that’s all about sitting around, arguing, talking, laughing, smoking, eating paan, and remembering — sticks for long in your child’s memory. The dissonant whirl of colors and sounds, abandoned games of hide-and-seek, dreams of Salman Khan movies dozed off to… It’s these moments that are more like memories that are more like muscle memory that Indian director Achal Mishra’s debut feature The Village House deals in. 

About the life of a home as generations of a family pass through it, The Village House is painstakingly particular and nuanced, waywardly recreating Mishra’s childhood experiences and working to preserve his family’s history. This is by virtue of the nuanced particularity of its form: we see scenes that are photograph-like vignettes, tableaux of life lazily unfurling, moments of history being discovered in a home, all tapping into something so heartbreakingly universal. In sharing his vision, in working through the act of remembering his ancestry, Mishra holds up a mirror to so many South Asian people, immigrants, rekindling long-neglected memories, reminding us that this happened to us, too — we came from a plentitude like this, too.

The plot is simple. In 1998, we meet a family bathed in soft sunlight, three generations — a matriarch, her sons and their wives, and their children. They are gathered together in the Village House, the house the matriarch’s husband/the son’s father had built and repaired. This patriarch used to be a famed playwright, but has passed away; the rest of the family gathers from afar for the celebration of the birth of the matriarch’s youngest son’s baby. What follows are the various movements of the women as they prepare for the rituals and feast that will be thrown in celebration of the baby boy, the men as they buy the fish for the feast, usher in the hired cooks. We see the delicate ritual take place, watched over by the matriarch. We see the enjoyment of this feast — in South Asian communities, one must always put on a show of refusing seconds even as they are piled onto one’s plate, and which one secretly wants, and we see this age-old custom sweetly on display among the various uncles who enjoy seconds. And then we see this feast’s sleepy, contented aftermath scattered throughout the great, cavernous house. 

The men sit in lawn chairs tonguing tobacco and halves of paan to the sides of their mouths, between gum and cheek, as they talk in their deliciously wet voices about past feasts, how everyone has been since the last gathering, about the feast just enjoyed. Meanwhile, the women, the wives and the matriarch, sit gathered on a charpai bed on the verandah of the house, laughing, making jokes, sharing stories. The young cousins are piled on another charpai within the children’s room whose walls are plastered with stickers of various cartoons. The eldest cousin brings the TV into this room, asking the women first if they want to watch cinema. He asks the kids, do they want to watch a Salman Khan movie or a Sunny Deol movie? They ask for Judwaa (1997) — they’re in the mood for Salman bhai. 

Thus unwinds the first chapter of the film. Its second chapter opens in 2010, with the cousins older; one who left for abroad with his father has returned, and is under the wing of an older cousin learning about their grandfather, the playwright. This chapter ends with the matriarch moving out of the house because all her children have left to Delhi or abroad, and she needs care, unable to live in the big house on her own anymore. The house now stands empty. The third chapter, opening in 2019, watches one of the cousins, now in his 30s or 40s, taking on the task of rebuilding the house that stood empty for nine years. Amid the house’s old bricks, a framed picture of the late patriarch, and sticker-marked debris, the film ends, with the house looking forward to new, perhaps younger inhabitants.

The plot is as simple as fine linen, like the movies of Chantal Akerman or Barbara Loden; yet like those other filmmakers’ works, there is something else going on here, quietly undergirding this meandering plot. Punctuating each of the chapters is the act of looking at photos and of photo-taking itself: family members take pictures of the festivities in the first act; the young cousin learns about his ancestry as he looks at sepia-toned photographs and preserves the house with his camera in the second act; and the eldest cousin, as he overlooks the house’s reconstruction, takes pictures on his smartphone of the progress so far. This act of documenting by the family shows the crucial, gelling function photographs perform in families: they are signposts, they ignite dialogue, spark memories, and storytelling. This act is also — and this is the film’s most unique and compelling aspect — mirrored by the film’s form itself.

Watching Mishra’s film is a deeply visual experience — and while this might sound platitudinous, what I mean is that The Village House requires two kinds of looking. The first and most obvious kind of looking is the manner of viewing required of every film’s viewer — we watch the movie, follow its narrative waves, trace the thematic threads. The film begins with the grandmother’s worry simmering in the atmosphere like the hissing of cicadas and crickets — we watch as she countenances losing the life of the house, its various sounds as her children leave. She’s worried, even as the warmth is kindled and rekindled through the years as stories and memories are shared, as members take and pass around photographs, read grandfather’s plays. The family’s thoughts and memories will still live, and that’s the film’s bittersweet message. The sounds, the lives in the house may leave, but they take what was birthed and shared and learned in the house, the memories, with them. Time is unrelenting, the film says, and this is sad, but there is hope to be had yet that not all is lost.  

Mishra hides within this more obvious kind of watching a more subtle way of looking: the looking that his frames prompt, the frames within which the narrative sprawls. Each frame is literally like a picture frame, housing a photograph that is the scene through which characters move. The cinematography is by Anand Bansal and it is as delicate as gossamer. The front of the house, its ionic pillars, are captured in their stately grace by Bansal’s gentle eye as they decay, frame after frame, a chair on the verandah that in one frame holds a dozing uncle and that in another overlooks the steadily emptying front yard — all these convey the film’s theme of the unrelentingness of time, but also serve in their own right as stunning pictures.  

This film is lush and colorful in a quiet sort of way, and in admiring its aesthetic beauty, it seems each frame is like a polaroid from the ‘60s or ‘70s or ‘80s, perhaps one from your family. They seem like the kind of glossy, skilllessly taken pictures you might find tucked within a Kodak photo album stashed away in a shoebox underneath your parents’ bed, the temporary paper albums they gave out at the photo developing lab in the ‘80s or ‘90s but that no one ever bothered exchanging for a fancier picture album yellowed. Watching this movie feels like remembering a past you have a hard time believing isn’t your own; one has to work at reminding oneself that one is not looking through one’s own family albums. Each frame could be a moment from your history, from your family’s history. You curb the urge to point a finger and say “who is that, mom?” because your mom isn’t perhaps watching with you, because this isn’t your family. But it could be, and that’s Mishra’s skill. 

In the press release for the film, Mishra said he’s performing memory work through this film, remembering his past and preserving it through his lens. As Mishra does this memory work, reifies his family’s history, he can’t help but to remind us to do this work as well, because of the film’s focus on looking, through characters within the film looking at photographs, but also through its picturesque form, which reminds us that we’re looking, makes us aware of this. We look at Mishra’s life and yearn to look at our own, too, perhaps.  

It’s a hefty emotional task Mishra hands us with The Village House, one of re-countenancing the places and the people we have left behind. In creating a visually stunning film of conjured memories, Mishra et al. gracefully achieve that colossal feat that every film aspires to: reminding us of ourselves. We gently flick through frames, the chapters of The Village House, and are reminded turn after turn to turn in on ourselves, to do as Mishra does, to remember. 

This is a beautiful film that feels like home for me. My family left Pakistan in 1999 and this home Mishra shows us — one wherein something is always being prepared, gathered, cooked, one wherein the life of every inhabitant unfurls simultaneously within various of its rooms (the greatest of tragedies take place a room over from the most ebullient joys), wherein various small families are one big family and one is never alone — this home of fullness and togetherness and safety and warmth, is something I have been searching for ever since 1999. With The Village House, I feel like I’ve finally found it, found where I was from. I can’t wait to see what Mishra does next.

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