A man runs, staggering into the mountainous snow enveloped lands of Himalayan villages leaving behind him a long trail of deep footprints in the snow in the early shot opening Geetu Mohandas’ directorial debut Liar’s Dice. Anxious to get away, the man is seemingly in pursuit of something, running towards it in a mysterious and whimsical search. His run will soon lead him to be an inevitable part in the journey of a woman in search of her missing husband named Harud, a migrant labourer whose whereabouts are unknown to his family for five months.
Moothon, the sophomore feature of Geetu Mohandas unfolds with a similar start of a search and escape as a brother’s lullaby gently floats in the air by the shores of an island in Lakshadweep as Mulla dreams of getting away from the island in search of her elder brother who left long ago, who since then has become a man of fairy tales, myriad rumours and is known as the one who left after a heartbreak. Innocent dreamy anticipation and anguish steering the characters’ search for the lost throb in the heart of Geetu Mohandas’ two phenomenal films which overwhelm in their intense feeling as they chronicle the terrors, pain and tragedy of loss.
The two films, however, are drastically varied in tone. The National award-winning Liar’s Dice which was chosen as India’s official entry for the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ for the 87th Academy Awards (though not enlisted in the final nominations) is a languorously paced part-road movie imbued with intriguing ambiguity as it revolves around a journey, a search during which develops a strangely close bond between strangers who have lost their beloved ones. The 2019 film Moothon magnificently blends noir and romance. These two films are unique in their own regard yet are spiritually one with themes rooting these melancholic tales running parallel in deeply intriguing ways.
Geetu Mohandas’ characters are searchers who set out from idyllic, isolated villages towards alien cities in pursuit of those lost. Kamala (a wonderfully resolute and moving Geetanjali Thapa) and her young daughter Manya leave the humble, paradisiacal village of Chitkul with their goat on a dark cold night, hoping to reach Shimla to find the missing husband. Mullla, finding the island village stifling her sense of identity and realizing that she is becoming a burden to her uncle sets out all on her own towards Mumbai on a stormy night, trusting the tides of the raging sea to take her to the city where she hopes her Moothon is.
Kamala and Mulla (a wonderful Sanjana Dipu) are undaunted, willing to take all risks naively and bravely to find the lost, there is a fierce hope mingled with their silent, aching anguish to reunite with the lost. These searchers brave the insidious testing on their hopes; the closer they get, the farther away drift the lost ones they are seeking. The optimism and unbridled hope in their search enable them persevere and in the foundation of this hope is a tremendous love, understood and deeply felt that we too hope, love and search with them before being entirely shattered by their losses.
In Liar’s dice, Nawazuddin Siddiqui with frightening mystery and moving goodness plays a baffling stranger who is both oddly endearing and elusive, a swindler and saviour he becomes a companion to Kamala in her search for Harud and he shifts constantly and mysteriously from a reliable, protective and noble friend to an unreliable, exploitative robber. He too is in a search and his is one for survival, a search for some semblance of home and family, he carries in his wallet an old photograph of his wife and daughter, this unravels why he develops an intimate attachment with Kamala, Manya and even their goat, he simply cannot abandon them for he seems to have found a strange sort of familial connection with them.
In a brief glimpse, we learn that he is a deserter from the Indo China border security force and he can’t return home to his family. These searchers who are lost themselves form a silent and strong bond, becoming a strange kind of family in their loss and drift.
If strangers come together as a sort of family in Liar’s Dice, the woeful drama in Moothon rises and hits hard when siblings find themselves as strangers to each other. Moothon, Mulla’s elder one she comes in search of is a villainous stranger to her as the Bhai of Kamathipura, a small-time goon who nabs her to sell her. New to Mumbai, Mulla hears Moothon’s animal-like groans from a prison and terrified she cries that she wants to go back home. The irony is piercing.
With bleary and bloodshot eyes in which there exists no mild trace of warmth, Bhai is almost always wasted and he does nasty jobs in the locality, pushed ruthlessly by his need for survival. Bhai is a distant ghost of his past and the scarred remains of Akbar’s ruins. In Liar’s dice, the gutting horror emerges from the untold story of a man’s disappearance, there surges an agonising sense of loss, injustice and dehumanising indifference in the face of death as Harud remains unknown and eternally lost alike numerous nameless migrant workers the film is dedicated to. Kamala’s deafening cries of pain echo in the cold city, through its nights but the buzzing city doesn’t seem to care.
I wish parts of Moothon which are echoes of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay were more refined, fleshed out and stirring as the central romance of the film but it is undeniably spectacular how the film uses the simple flashback tool of narration to cut through the present with a wonderfully sublime and unbearably tragic import. The present lives of Mulla and her Moothon in Mumbai are halved by the past in the film as the flashback forms a poignant and heart-breaking centre of the tale. In the depths of the dent between these two halves of the present, the wrecked dreams and losses of the past ache, a past which is so removed from what their lives are today, a past so irretrievably lost that it haunts the present ceaselessly.
The toughened and bereaved Bhai is in his youth a sensitive and beaming lover, a God’s man who performs religious rituals to cure the ill. In the island village sternly attached to religion, there is none who shall understand Ameer and Akbar’s love. It is a love that unfurls gently, a deep, desirous love that becomes tragically unattainable. Under the moonlight, with the heaving seas and lonely shores as their confidants, Akbar and Ameer love, embrace, caress each other in silence, dream of a life together in Bombay and finally part. Nivin Pauly as Akbar and Roshan Mathew as Ameer are unforgettable and greatly affecting as they brim with love, agony, anger, and frustrations.
In Moothon, the shadow of Akbar’s search looms large silently and is as crucial to the film as Mulla’s search. Akbar flees to Bombay in search of a lost lover and their lost dreams. We don’t get to see that part of his life with all the search and the immense grief. It is buried in the dreadful past Akbar has resolved to forget and there is mystery and implication here that we are compelled to imagine and suffer all the pain and the heart-wringing sense of loss in the fraught search. Akbar has come to Bombay to seek his lost Ameer in the rays of the sun and in the flutter of a free pigeon’s wings in the glorious dawn of the city and in the waves of its sea. But Akbar’s Bombay is none like Ameer’s. Akbar’s is a thundering Bombay, vengeful with its gloomy clouds and heavy showers. It is vehement as an angered city avenging Akbar for his silence when a crestfallen Ameer shuddered with love and longing, imploring him that they leave for Bombay and lead a life together.
The city has turned lives inside out, even Amina’s. Amina, Ameer’s sister leads a changed life as a dancer in the bar her husband owns. The Bombay that grants freedom and escape is so distant, we glimpse at a far skyscraper through the window grills of Bhai’s dirty and cramped dwelling. When a group of trans women lovingly take Mulla through the city in a crowded taxi, they point her towards that part of Mumbai where film stars live but we never see that part of the city as the camera rests in the space inside the taxi. The shadows of the past and the grief of lost love and innocence invade the lives of Mulla and Moothon as he who named her, sung her lullabies and showed her the world recklessly leads her down hellfire. There is no return as the dreamers, lovers and searchers are shunned to a life of loss and grief.
The goat Kamala and Manya carry with them in Liar’s Dice and the goat Mulla is forced to kill in the brutal rite of passage in becoming one of Bhai’s gang in Moothon become the symbol of innocence, a lost innocence. Kamala and Manya take the goat with them despite knowing very well that it will be a hindrance in their journey, this is telling of how severing ties and abandonment are not the choices they take, intimate attachments of love are preserved, always held close regardless of the crushing pains.
Ephemeral graces of the ethereal stun in Moothon. As Mulla sets out to Bombay, the tempests in the sea rage and drown her, it is as if the sea having witnessed the tragic fate of the lovers is warning Mulla to abandon her search. In the waters, Mulla sees a vision of a mermaid in close semblance to Amina, her only hope to reach her Moothon in Bombay.
In another dreamy sequence, Akbar who is deeply in love, rests in his boat, basking under the sun, and he jokes that the fishes will fill themselves in his boat. They actually do, fishes rain into his boat and in that instant, all wishes are granted, there is not a shadow of an impending tragedy in the horizon and hearts are surrendered to love and miracles. A tiny ray of hope, of untouched innocence glows in the smile of Mulla in the unsettling end of Moothon and the child’s radiant smile is tinged with relief, solace and a shattering tragedy that the lump of sorrow choking in your throat aches a long while.