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Gamak Ghar: The Village House Is a Brilliant Debut

Gamak Ghar, or The Village House as it is known in English-speaking countries, is a film of such astonishing beauty and depth it is almost impossible to believe it is the work of a 23-year-old. Debuting this week on streaming, writer-director Achal Mishra’s first film portrays the comings and goings of an Indian matriarch’s rural home, where over several decades members of the extended family gather for special occasions. In The Village House there is little plot to speak of—and no individual protagonist save perhaps for the titular entity itself—but the film speaks quiet volumes about the pleasures and passages of time.

The tale is told in three distinct acts, though its narrative does not follow any traditional structure. Rather, each section is demarcated from the others by a brief indication of the year in which it takes place and its aspect ratio, which changes noticeably and purposefully with the passage of time. More experimental than traditional, more evocative than expository, The Village House‘s story unfolds through the passages of its aging doorways.

The film’s first section, set in 1998, is shot in a windowboxed 1.33:1 aspect ratio and features a series of astonishingly, achingly beautiful compositions, rich in color and texture, lit and framed almost as still-life paintings. In fact, Anand Bansal’s camera rarely moves. Each scene is filmed from a distinct, static, yet perfectly purposeful perspective, typically in a wide/long shot that allows individual characters to enter and leave the the frame. Dirt roads, lonely trees, white clouds, and blue skies lead to the house itself, where family members gather, celebrating the birth of a new baby boy. Idle chat, sundry chores, and traditional rituals are shot with an intentional, almost anthropological curiosity, creating beautiful imagery and capturing intimate moments.

A person's hand reaches to pick a mango from a tree

In this first section, the narrowness of the frame often creates a closeness, a familiarity of characters. Family members share anecdotes, gossip about acquaintances, and debate the future. Like in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and its sequels or Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, characters are often caught between the traditional and the modern. With an ethnographer’s attention to detail and a painter’s eye for light and composition, Mishra and Bansal chart the rituals developed over generations as family members ponder prospects of the future. The house itself, sprawling and unpretentious, serves as single constant, a place where life bustles with the energies of festivity and traditions, whether it’s the boys and uncles gathering to watch Salman Khan on tv or the girls and aunts preparing traditional food.

A group of young mena nd children watch television

Composer Anshuman Sharma’s quiet, melodic score beautifully complements Amet Vikram Bhandari’s sound design—no small challenge with a film where dialogue is often shot at some distance and overlaps between characters in casual conversation. The music’s bright, tender notes create a Village House that in 1998 is full of live, love, laughter, and lore.

The second section of the film changes its aspect ratio to 1.85:1 and is set in 2010. As times have changed, so has the framing, which now feels more expansive and less crowded. The Village House is still the same, but now, one character tells another, “There’s no time these days.” Fewer family members return, and so its rooms feel, in stark contrast to the narrowness of the first section, empty. Conversations now take place between two family members, not four or six, and focus on the past. Colors are muted, the compositions less vibrant, and the musical score less melodic. “Gradually we came down to visiting only once a year,” one character tells another. The structure itself has begun to age visibly, but what is even more noticeable is the comparative emptiness and silence that now echoes through its fading hallways.

For the film’s third section, the aspect ratio changes once again—now letterboxed to 2.39:1—and for a final time, in 2019, the Village House is revisited. Only now, there are no nieces, nephews, cousins, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts. The widescreen frame now silently charts a quiet stasis, where only workmen are visible in the slow process of repair and renovation. The structure that once housed a bustling family full of promise and hope remains, but it’s now no longer a hub; rather, it’s a symbol of decay, of the inexorable passage of time, and of the traditions of the past.

Mishra’s film was completed in 2019 and has screened at festivals across the world prior to its current North American streaming release. For Mishra, The Village House “is a very personal film based on my childhood experiences, and is in a way, my attempt to preserve the memory of our ancestral home.” Mishra has accomplished far more than that: his film is not only a testament to his own ancestry bur rather a tour de force of auteurist filmmaking that has the potential to resonate with any viewer. Its vision is singular, its cinematography incredible, its narrative unique. With The Village House, Mishra has made a personal film with universal appeal.

Gamak Ghar / The Village House is available to stream beginning May 10 on Projectr.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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