Sumitra Bhave & Sunil Sukhtankar – the conscience keepers of Marathi cinema and filmmakers par excellence – are back. If you are familiar with their exceptional body of work, you would know their approach to filmmaking – a pertinent social issue tackled cinematically with utmost sensitivity, grace and sincerity. Often Bhave’s screenplays layer the seemingly simple storyline with deep meanings with the help of metaphors. Their latest Kaasav (Turtle) also uses the same tropes to great effect.
The film begins with a young, curly-haired boy named Manav who slits his wrist for a reason the film chooses not to dwell upon; such sensational details are not to the taste of Bhave-Sukhtankar. Instead, in their trademark style, they choose to focus on what it takes to empower a depressed soul to fight the much misunderstood disease of depression. The deeply disturbed boy whose real name we come to know only much later in the film is given shelter by Janaki. Dealing with a nasty divorce, she herself is recovering from a mental illness and is thus empathetic to his plight. She has involved herself in a turtle conservation project on the coast of rural Maharashtra as her psychiatrist has suggested her to do something selfless in order to regain a strong purpose in life.
Unlike most of the animal kingdom, the mother turtles lay their eggs on the beach and don’t wait till they hatch, but swim back to the sea. The baby turtles are very much on their own, ever since they take their first wobbly steps in the big bad world. Janaki much like the mother turtles, nurtures the young boy with great care and compassion, and tries her best to help him regain the strength within him to deal with the disease all by himself. She doesn’t as much as hold his hand and lead him, but gently pushes him towards the path of recovery. Having gone through it herself, she knows that’s the approach which works best.
The turtle analogies don’t stop here. The shell in which depressed souls like Manav seek refuge could be symbolic of the manner in which the turtle try to protect themselves on the threat of a predator. The resoluteness with which the slow-paced, vegetarian turtles live more than a hundred years in the high seas could be seen as an inspiration to live life through all its ups and downs.
None of these analogies, however, are obvious or seem forced or heavy-handed. Trust, Bhave-Sukhtankar to seamlessly weave it into the plot without making a big show of it. They choose to paint their pictures not with broad-strokes, but with a gentler, humane eye quite reminiscent of the best of Iranian cinema.
Of course the film wouldn’t have been even half as impactful if the performances weren’t as good. Irawati Harshe as the compassionate Janaki who’s vulnerable to panic attacks herself, but also has the strength within her to deal with them, is just fantastic; a revelation in Bhave-Sukhtankar’s previous movie Astu, she’s even better here. Alok Rajwade is perfectly cast as Manav and brings across the emotional turmoil with ease. Kishore Kadam as the simple-minded yet caring servant is brilliant as usual. The little Onkar Ghadi as the orphan street child regales you with his street-learnt wisdom in Malvani.
The technical side compliments the scenario without ever drawing attention to itself. Dhanjay Kulkarni’s bright, scenic frames capturing the vast open spaces of the coastal village are beautifully contrasted with the internal turmoil of the characters. Mohit Takalkar’s editing juxtaposes the beach and its waves waves rather evocatively with the soul-stirring song Leher Samandar.
Kaasav (Turtle) won Bhave-Sukhtankar the National Award for the Best Film last year. Their films have won two more National Awards and a number of other Maharashtra State Awards. However, finding a release for their films is still a herculean task. Neither are they a hit on the festival circuit. Unperturbed, the duo has been tirelessly making the kind of cinema they believe in for more than a couple of decades with a quiet dignity which is hard to find – like a turtle, indeed!