The Man Beyond the Bridge (2009)

The 2010 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles debuted last night and will continue through Sunday, April 25th. It’s one of the better produced local festivals and takes place in Hollywood at the posh Arclight Cinema. It aims to strengthen ties between filmmakers of Indian descent, audiences, and industry people, so its line-up emphasizes popular hits and Bollywood films, but it also includes documentaries and the occasional art film.

A standout with elements of the latter category this year is The Man Beyond the Bridge (screening Sunday), Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s FIPRESCI-award-winning drama, fresh from Berlinale’s Forum section. It’s a fascinating story set in Goa, India’s smallest state nestled in the Western Ghats mountain range, a biodiversity hotspot threatened by human development.

An isolated and weary forest service guard named Vinayak (Chittaranjan Giri)–who’s spent fifteen years chasing away poachers and who recently became a widower–faces a new crisis when villagers (across a bridge) decide to erect a temple in the forest. The villagers are quickly rallied by the combined tactics of a politician and a religious guru who assert the right to use the forest to protect it from their own sense of moral contamination. “This land belongs to the people,” they contend. “We came first, the government came later; this temple is an ultimate symbol of our culture, tradition, and humanity.” Meanwhile, the construction whittles away at the dwindling preserve.

The plot is further complicated when Vinayak, almost in spite of himself, begins to shelter a mad and mute woman (Veena Jamkar) whom the villagers have completely shunned. Vinayak–whose day to day activity largely consists of shouting at poachers–initially treats her like a stray animal, leaving her food on the doorstep of his meager stone house and literally dragging her into a washhouse. But a bond slowly develops between the two social outcasts that gradually offers them human companionship and love. Their unconventional relationship enrages the villagers, however, and a final confrontation mounts between the nonconformists and the religious mob.

The film is based on a short story by Konkani writer Mahabaleshwar Sai, and it skillfully balances an array of tensions between control and freedom, cultural heritage and moral claiming rights, natural resources and development, public piety and personal transformation. While some of the dramaturgy and camerawork feels conventional–the periodic use of crane shots unnecessarily inflates what is essentially a rural character drama–Shetgaonkar is a master of the long shot in which a detached and wider perspective gives rise to thematic contemplation, and the film’s cinematography is beautfully naturalistic without devolving into the merely picturesque.

There’s a fascinating emphasis on costuming as well; the colorful saris of the villagers contrast with the outcasts’ brown garments and Vinayak’s preference for plain t-shirts and quick changes into uniforms whenever his superiors show up becomes a telling motif for a man exhausted by his sisyphean task.

The Man Beyond the Bridge was years in development due to the vagaries of Goan film funding, but the time spent refining its screenplay shows in the way the film artfully builds its narrative conflicts. It’s an accessible movie but one whose degrees of import and subtle dualities expand with the kind of attention they richly deserve.

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