Bhoga Khirikee: Priyanka Chopra-produced Assamese indie is a compelling take on the abuse of power

Siddhant Adlakha

May 27, 2019 16:01:14 IST

There’s a real, visceral anger underlying Bhoga Khirikee (Broken Windows), the latest from writer-director Jahnu Barua (Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara), but it comes wrapped in vagaries and platitudes. The quiet Assamese indie, produced by international mega-star Priyanka Chopra, arrives with claims of being based on a real story; Barua no doubt takes inspiration from real events and political backdrops, and even the real experiences of a young woman in Assam. Though the story as seen in the film — or rather, the way Barua tells it — seems to forego verisimilitude.

The film features a devastating central performance from Zerifa Wahid, who also featured in Barua’s Baandhon, but even this clear dramatic highlight feels under-served. Wahid plays Togor, a woman secretly married to absconding militant Koncheng (Joy Kashyap), much to the chagrin of her parents. She lies in wait for Koncheng, staring at the eponymous broken window in her bedroom, through which Koncheng often sneaks in to visit her, and she finds herself distracted from her day job of tutoring young students.

Togor also finds out she’s pregnant, which establishes the film’s apparent conflict — while hiding this from her parents, she anonymously frequents internet cafes in search of information on abortion — but the film doesn’t actually reveal its true nature (or true focus) until seventy-five minutes in to its two-hour runtime. Until then, Barua’s story feels dramatically aloof; he presents a protagonist with a deep sense of longing and isolation (not to mention symptoms of depression), but rare are the moments in which he dramatises what she’s actually feeling or experiencing beyond missing her husband.

Bhoga Khirikee: Priyanka Chopra-produced Assamese indie is a compelling take on the abuse of power

The official poster of Bhoga Khirikee.

A brief, black-and-white daydream fantasy sees Togor stealing a rifle from a nearby jawaan, hinting at some deeper angst, but the interlude ends abruptly. This scene, like much of the film’s first two-thirds, neither allows us into Togor’s worldview, nor grounds her actions in discernible motive; instead, it treats Togor like a mystery to be solved. To discuss what Bhoga Khirikee is even remotely about would mean “spoiling” a major twist, though this sudden turn in plot and tone feels entirely disconnected from everything preceding it.

Still, spoilers to follow.

After Koncheng returns and whisks Togor away, Togor reveals that her pregnancy was the result of being raped by a military officer who came in search of Koncheng during his absence. Though what’s especially bizarre about this exchange is it does little to re-contextualise what we’ve seen so far; for seventy-five minutes, it still feels like a movie about a woman missing her husband, and nothing more.

Togor’s assault subsequently plays out in a green-tinged flashback; the film’s blistering anger at the abuses of the green-clad Indian army permeates the frame in this moment, but upon the narrative’s return to the present, its anger becomes rooted in a story that feels nearly inhumane in its musings. The “reveal” itself follows an explicit verbal exchange about Koncheng’s feelings on the Armed Forces, but the film never frames his actions or ideals as anything more than fleeting disdain; even awareness of political realities and ideologies doesn’t help from an audience standpoint, since the army has little presence in the film (and is balanced out with ostensibly upstanding officers ready to fight for Togor’s honour). And while Togor’s subsequent scenes allow Wahid to wrestle with a deep sense of betrayal, the foundation her performance is built on feels non-specific in every way.

For the most part, the camera keeps us at a distance from Togor and the other characters. When Togor is alone, this allows Wahid to tell her story through posture; she often slumps over and lies defeated (though prior to the “reveal,” there’s little indication as to why). But as soon as more than one character occupies the frame, the result is most often two-shots at a distance, which does little to establish physical relationship or dynamic beyond dialogue.

Wahid and Kashyap share an explosive chemistry in the brief scenes they’re together, but the story most often rests on Togor’s wistful glances which, during the first two-thirds, depend on the spectre of an absent man. The only information provided verbally or visually, for seventy-five whole minutes, results in assumed empathy (Togor’s glances must mean something, one assumes, since other characters reference her husband). Though once the film arrives at its oddly framed “twist,” it feels not as though dramatic foreshadowing has come to fruition, but as though someone has changed the channel and turned on an entirely different movie.

This second film certainly has point to make.

Togor’s anger at the jawaans, and at her own father’s violence towards her mother, become conflated. On paper, the film righteously takes aim at patriarchal systems in totality; the result is a singular moment of outburst at everything. Once all the dramatic pieces have been aligned, this bubbling-over of emotions allows Wahid the necessary clarity to tell a story through her performance, rather than the film relying on blank stares juxtaposed with nothing in particular — or worse, on exposition divorced from visual drama. The scene in question even affords Togor some close-ups (finally!), though it feels too little, too late.

There’s a warmth and comfort to Togor’s rural surroundings, though one wonders if lush greens and warm skin tones serve the story at hand, since little beyond Wahid’s performance tells us anything about Togor’s melancholy. Barua’s vibrant frame feels like a throwback to the days of Aparoopa and his earlier works on celluloid, though digital cameras are by no means the problem; Bhoga Khirikee lacks the stark contrast of Barua’s more recent Ajeyo too, whose black-heavy digital palette feels like the perfect tonal template for the story he wants to tell here.

Bhoga Khirikee has a lot on its mind, though in creating an allegory for abuses of power in concept, it inadvertently strips itself of humanity as a literal text about an actual human being. Togor’s story is potent when recounted in retrospect, but as the film plays out, the way it reveals dramatic information renders it an exercise in presumption and peering-in from a distance.

Updated Date: May 27, 2019 16:01:14 IST