'Invitation' ('Nimtoh') Film Review | Mumbai 2019

Courtesy of Mumbai Film Festival
'Invitation'
A quiet, original take on life in rural India.

The mysterious antagonism between a boy and a wealthy landowner in Darjeeling is explored in Saurav Rai’s first feature.

Inspired by the filmmaker’s own experiences growing up in a village in West Bengal near Darjeeling, Invitation (Nimtoh) is a small, quirky first film told with humorous sympathy. It has a voice unmistakably its own, much like its 10-year-old protagonist. The simple story of a boy who wants to attend the wedding of the people he and his grandmother work for sheds unexpected light on the feudal structure of modern Indian villages, even though it’s hard to tell what class anyone belongs to other than rich and poor and poorer.

Writer-director Saurav Rai has twice been smiled on at the Cannes Film Festival: first, when his short student film Nest (Gudh) was selected for the Cinefondation section, and then when the current film participated in the Hong Kong Asian Financing Forum. The attention focused on this new voice from northern India should earn Invitation festival berths after its Mumbai bow, though it seems too intimate and glancing for wider release.

We meet the charming young Tashi precariously balanced atop a swaying sapling while his old granny sits on a hill, urging him to come down and go to school. From the first shots, Rai directs the audience’s attention to offscreen space. There are always characters doing things just out of sight on the other side of the frame, giving the film an aura of mystery and the unknown, which perhaps reflects a young boy’s perspective on adult motivations. For his part, Rai does nothing to clarify what happened to the boy’s parents or how they ended up where they are.

Tashi and his grandmother are the poor tenants of a wealthy family who live next door to them in a comfortable two-story home in the countryside. They earn their keep doing odd jobs for the family, like staying awake at night and shooing wild animals away from the cardamom orchard. Despite Tashi’s diligent (but never slavish) attitude to his chores, the landowner thoroughly dislikes him. One can only speculate about what puts him on edge: perhaps the boy’s sense of freedom and small acts of disobedience. In a scene played for laughs, the nice lady of the house tells Tashi to go watch cartoons on TV, but as soon as he comes into the living room, the old man changes the channel to a boring talk show. In this case the landowner succeeds in exercising his power, but as the film goes on, Tashi becomes bolder and outwits him.

The big event that is coming up is the wedding of the family’s son, who works in the city. Tashi is anxious to be invited; his granny just smiles. The landowner writes 50 invitations and has him deliver them to the villagers in the surrounding countryside. Tashi, however, holds one back for himself and granny.

As wedding day dawns, the boy is busily working behind the scenes with the other hired help. It’s an informal affair in the garden — some of the women guests turn up wearing pants and the men are in T-shirts — but there are undercurrents that are hard to catch. The groom knows Tashi and is as fond of him as his mother, but when he takes his father’s rifle into the woods and shoots it beside the boy, the threat of violence appears.

Later, an insignificant incident sparks a cruel punishment, but Rai seems determined not to reveal what actually happens in the woods, and it’s really impossible to tell how far the landowner crosses the line in his dealings with the boy. Like the aesthetic choice to keep events offscreen, one has to wonder how such a heavy veil over the narrative advances the story, when a straightforward account would have deepened our understanding of the characters’ relationships and maybe offered emotional inroads into a tale that tends to be empathetic, yes, but also dry and distanced.

Shot in Nepali, the casting includes Rai’s father and grandmother (both fine and natural in their roles), along with village people from the area.

 
Production company: Crawling Angel Films
Cast: Pravesh Gurung, Chandra Dewan, Suni Rai, Teresa Rai, Digbijay Singh Rai
Director-screenwriter: Saurav Rai
Producers: Sanjay Gulati, Neeraj Panday
Director of photography: Appu Prabhakar
Editor: Jishnu Sen
Venue: Mumbai Film Festival (India Gold)

85 minutes