Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni s second feature, Vihir (The Well) received warmest reception. An international audience was moved by a Marathi story, with impeccably beautiful visual style, narrative subtlety with layers of philosophical complexity and yet accessible world for someone situated in other cultures. The film reasserts the high quality of films that have emerged in Marathi cinema but even more importantly, it presents a striking case of how a given film can transcend the cultural specificity without particularities of its own contexts. Here is a film that becomes a world film, no longer to be regarded only as a Marathi film alone. That is classy achievement and the film deserves it.
Kulkarni is not new to Rotterdam. His Vallu (The Bull) also appealed broadly to the audiences of cinephiles two years ago. With Vihir, he offers a film that engages, challenges and leaves you contemplating about broader meanings of life or even the transience of each moment.
Set in Southern Maharashtra in Satara area, Vihir is about two cousins, one a mature, brooding, independent, elder thinker and the other a younger apprentice for life, a joy-seeking city-cousin who wants to soak in all that the summer trips and family gatherings have to offer him. Their large, joint family is blessed with claims normalcy with its petty politics, the well-brewed sagas of the past that keep simmering just enough to spread the despair, tangled webs of negligence and quarrels among parents and children, in-laws and by extension, all cousins and children who are witnesses to the horrid dramas that fail to provide them with genuine happiness of a large family. The elder cousin, Nachiket is growing up with a sincere and strong mother but a lost, drunkard father who has failed in business. Sameer, the protagonist-cousin experiences a flood of emotions to the depths of the sea as he realizes the landscape of Nachiket s mind. Nachiket wants to find some other reality; he is tired of the frustrations of this life through his family and the despair it offers. He loves to be in nature, where the primal presence of life is pure and simple. Both cousins swim in a well, though Nachiket needs an harness for a swim.
The film offers as any meaningful film would, challenges of engaging with the narrative. Shot in beautiful settings of Sahyadri Mountains, with older style houses (waadas), Kulkarni s film unfolds like a child s dream, reinterpreted when one grows old. There are moments of pure joy in hiding games children play in multiple rooms, swimming with your cousins when the whole family goes for an outing, silly games with younger siblings and there are moments of dread when grandfather screams around at his son, all the while performing holy ritual, the tales of disappointments for women who see each other only in such occasions.
Kulkarni s command of the pace of the narrative e and its various sub-sets is exceptionally strong. Perfectly mindful that he is weaving a complex narrative with a central nervous system, he stays with Nachiket, as his own disillusions play a part in our perceptions of the film. The most intriguing and the most exceptional achievement of this film has to do with what Kulkarni has done with the dimension of time. With the large family, it is stuck in deep mud; with Sameer, it is to be chased and understood and with Nachiket, it achieves the sublime level of oneness with all. The most poignant moment of the film must belong to the meeting and conversation with a sheep-herder (a dhangar) whom Sameer meets as he loses his way in the fields. Here is someone who has achieved that much sought after nirvana of time, an awareness that is in-depth, mature and enlightening to go on living life for what it offers. When film invokes a philosophical thought while telling engaging, absorbing stories, it achieves a level of endurability that cannot be displaced by either proselytizing or by superficial entertainment. With Vihir, we have just that challenge realized effectively on the screen.
These meditations remain on the level of our everyday conversations; there is no philosophical loftiness to them. There is a mature subtlety to them that ought to put Kulkarni on to the front of filmmakers to watch in world cinema.
Indeed, count him as one of our best filmmakers working today. With deft and insightful script from Girish Pandurang Kulkarni, this film wowed the audiences in Rotterdam and there is no doubt it would elsewhere too. The film was shown as part of Bright Futures and Kulkarni and his team deserve to claim just that, a Bright Future for world cinema and for Marathi-Indian cinema.