House of Time

Kalkokkho
Kalkokkho, written and directed by Sarmistha Maiti & Rajdeep Paul

“Doomsday…Apocalypse…The End of the World…Earlier we used to see these only in foreign films. Apocalypse would happen only in their countries then, and a handsome male hero, just in the nick of time, would save everyone from impending doom. Though it had no relevance in our own lives, it was always great to witness it onscreen through the magic of movies. But in real life, Apocalypse is so boring, monotonous, like a slow-paced art-house film.”

This wry, meta-cinematic line of dialogue from Kalkokkho, or House of Time, the new feature film from Kolkata-based writer-director duo Sarmistha Maiti & Rajdeep Paul, aptly captures the mood many of us felt in the earliest days of last year’s nearly global Covid pandemic lockdown.  I remember falling into a black hole of depression for two weeks or so, lying on my sofa staring at the ceiling, feeling psychologically and spiritually immobilized; tied down, even.  Soon, however, I began to play the Glad Game, count my many blessings, untie myself and get off my self-absorbed butt.  I reminded myself that when the going gets weird, the weird get going.

Such is the arc of this riveting film, a slow burn of a psychospiritual thriller in which our protagonist, a doctor, is abducted by a frightened family of three women and quite literally tied down, a perfect metaphor for how many of us felt.  As the plot unfolds, the characters climb in and out of their own black holes.  The same day repeats itself. Their conversations recur. Is this Theatre of the Absurd or just the routinization of life under lockdown?  Is it the magical realism of Groundhog Day or the abnormal psychology of Melancholia?

The doctor, his family of female kidnappers — and the audience — can never be sure, and that’s part of the sad joy of this smart, beautifully crafted film with a mind-bending conclusion.  The colorfulness of India suddenly becomes a drab world. You’ll swear some of it was shot in black and white but it’s entirely in, well, living colorlessness. The set and costume design are brilliantly executed in this regard.  The increasingly grim news reports that the trapped characters all sit and hear throughout the film put me in the mind of the disturbing radio updates peppered throughout 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, one of the few American films where the dashing male hero fails to save the day, but in Kalkokkho the news reports are real.

As someone once said, I always know there’s truth in art when it troubles me.  Like a painting, Kalkokkho invites you spend time with it, study it, turn it over in your mind a few times, for great art is never easy, and rarely what it seems on the surface.

The official synopsis from the film’s press release:

Amidst a contagious pandemic an apathetic but adept doctor finds himself captive in a house inhabited by three women– a paranoid young woman, an amnesic old woman and a lonely young girl, gradually realizing that he might be trapped not only in space but also in time. The film explores the texture of time with a blend of magic realism and existential horror to express the sense of dread and temporal stasis generated universally by the Covid19 Pandemic. Through mythological allegory and spiritual subtext, it explores eternal themes like reality and illusion, instinct and morality, love, loneliness and grief, the power of stories, nature of the feminine and the masculine, and the discriminations of ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘they’ to tell a tale of “longing for belongingness” which is the biggest crisis of human existence now and forever…

Since the inception of cinema in India, with the legacy of producing and distributing Satyajit Ray’s “Jalsaghar”, “Aparajito” and also distributing Ray’s “Pather Panchali” and Ritwik Ghatak’s “Ajantrik” to name a few, Aurora Film Corporation has been the pillar of strength for supporting novel creative minds and enlightening the vision of noble cinema. The saga continues… (www.aurorafilmcorporation.com)

My Dinner With Tina

Why is this man making a hand-rabbit? Scroll down to find out.

If you missed my interview last night with the masterful Tina Brock of the IRC and would like to hear more about my mis/adventures in India, my work as a Fulbright Scholar and the nonfiction book I’m currently finishing, along with Tesla, ghosts, paan, religion, David Ives, and a few other surprises, you can catch it here on the IRC’s youtube channel:

 

 

A Postard From India

Photo by Sanhita Mukherjee.

I was honored and proud to be asked to write the foreword to the English version of this moving and vivid short story collection. Congratulations, translator Sanhita Mukherjee and Bengali author Raja Sinha  (also spelled in English Raja Singho). The Postcard Tales launched this weekend at the Chennai Book Fair in India.

Here’s where you can get it:

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FOREWORD

Jamaica Kincaid once wrote, A great piece of literature encompasses all that is and all that will be.

Yes, this applies even to short stories.

A great short story stands alone. It is not an excerpt from a novel or a vague synopsis of a longer story crammed into a predetermined word count. A great short story is a stolen glance through a window into someone else’s life. The best ones leave us with a sense of “sweet sorrow,” a yearning to linger there on the sidewalk a little longer even though we must press on to our own destinations. Such stories don’t need a contrived cliffhanger ending in order to leave us dying to know what happens next. They accomplish that effect through more organic and nuanced means.

The first short stories I experienced were fairy tales read to me by my mother before I was old enough to go to school. Then came the Jack Tales, a unique feature of my Appalachian upbringing. Later I would discover the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, John Cheever, Edgar Allan Poe. Some capture the human condition with horror, others with humor, others with nightmarish satire. They have all left me comforted in knowing I wasn’t the only one experiencing life’s suffering; that in some way it’s communal, that we’re all in it together. They left me satisfied, but a little bit sad to see them go.

The stories in this collection have captivated me in the same ways. They are unique to India but they are universal to all of us. From the self-mutilation in “Primeval” that I will never be able to expunge from my mind, to the smell of burning books in “The Five Windows,” to the heart- wrenching revelations of a condemned young woman moments before her execution, along with the unspoken and timely themes that accompany them, Raja Sinha has left me haunted.

Even so, I was eager to turn the page and peer through the next glass, following along with the author’s appraisals and inquiries into life, culture, society and survival. May you be moved by his investigations at least half as much as me.

Jeffrey Stanley

Fulbright-Nehru Scholar

New York University