Cast: Jaaved Jaaferi, Shaylea K
Director: Santosh Sivan
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Moha premiered on Sunday at the ongoing 52nd International Film Festival of Rotterdam.
A contemplative, if occasionally ponderous, fable set in an indeterminate era - "once upon a time and many times before and after" - and in a land with no name, Moha, produced, directed and co-written by ace cinematographer Santosh Sivan, evokes the origins of the pictorial arts and employs the camera like an elemental paintbrush to create a hypnotic, fluid, pristine aesthetic. It structures a solid framework for a story anchored in myth and delivered without the trappings of popular Indian cinema.
Moha, Sivan's first Hindi-language directorial since 2008's Tahaan, does away with dialogue altogether with the purpose of evoking a natural, perhaps even primeval, ambience. The images - pure, powerful and set free from the limiting effect of words - frequently leap out of the screen. A narration written by Himanshu Singh and delivered in the voice of Jaaved Jaaferi runs through the film and serves to explain the context of the events that unfold and the ideas that flow into and out of them.
Jaaferi also plays one of two key roles - that of a hermit who grapples with the might of a sword that he chances upon and the allure of a beautiful young girl he has rescued and nursed back to health. The film examines in a wistful and whimsical manner the ramifications of power and violence on one hand and the workings of love and desire on the other.
Sivan has another Hindi film (Mumbaikar) in the works. But Moha, notwithstanding the language on the soundtrack, is anything but a classifiable film, be it in terms of genre or provenance. It marks a departure from the usual for the maker of Halo and Asoka. It plunges into the depth of the art and craft of moviemaking and attempts an unbridled tapping of the profound potential of poetry to enrich cinematic compositions.
Given the kind of experiment that Moha is, a runtime of 102 minutes might seem 10 or 20 minutes too long, but the magical quality of the unblemished image-making that drives the film ensures that the experience is both intriguing and spell-binding and certainly not in a merely superficial way.
Every frame that Sivan conjures up resembles a work of art that can be put up on a museum wall for display. That these images also move and breathe and glide like a stream in full flow only adds to their appeal. Moha isn't designed for conventional entertainment but the gratification that it offers is both instantly sensual and deeply lyrical.
The film presents a contrast between beauty and bloodshed, oftentimes offering glimpses of how the two opposing sides of humanity can startlingly coalesce. The exquisite and lush visuals carry their own weight all right, but the moral thrust of Moha is not overwhelmed by the gloss and perfection of the canvas.
Moha opens with nearly eight minutes of uninterrupted images interspersed with the view of a man dancing in the middle of a river and a verdant landscape. Conjuring up intimacy and distance in one sweep, the vastness of the frame and the centrality of the choreographed human silhouette at its heart sum of what the visual prelude intends to achieve. It sets the tone for the film's free and fanciful approach to an overarching meditation on the nature of power, beauty and mankind's constant search for peace.
The two principal characters in Moha, which premiered on Sunday at the 52nd International Film Festival of Rotterdam, are recognisable archetypes and have no names. One is emblematic of renunciation and detachment; the other denotes both purity and temptation.
The conflict between the two and the constant negotiation that takes place around it without a word being uttered and only through actions, gestures and facial expressions are central to the film. But the focal point of the story is a sword, a symbol of Shakti, an attribute that can rob a child of his innocence, an adult of his sense of justice.
The sword, as the narrator reveals, is brought to the once-serene forest by a King from a land afar. He is running away from a shocking crime that he has perpetrated on his family. He is full of repentance. The hermit tries to liberate the fleeing royal from the curse of the weapon that has led him astray.
The ascetic believes that he can get rid of the sword and save the forest from falling into a cycle of unending violence. He, however, soon realises that bloodstains are here to stay because they are Shakti's permanent adornment and that there is no way escaping the might of the sword.
This story, which the narrator describes as one that was "hidden in the earth's womb by the forest", has another equally significant strand represented by a lost princess (Shaylee Krishen) who unlocks a part of the yogi's character that like the tale of the arrival of Shakti, lies buried in being.
Moha conducts a philosophical exploration of violence jealousy and obsession through the means of the battles that rage within the hermit, especially the one that is fanned when a man from the girl's troubled past returns and seeks to reconnect with her. The yogi's ascetism is severely tested - as is the future of the forest that he dwells in.
For Jaaved Jaaferi, best known for his comic roles, is thrown into a deep end where he has no words to fall back on. Using mime and movement to convey emotions and thoughts, the actor, like the yogi he embodies on the screen, is put to the test. He comes out with flying colours. The less seasoned Shaylee Krishen is cast as an epitome of beauty. Mercifully, it is more than skin deep.
Filmed in the Chalakudy forests of Kerala on a shoestring budget, Moha is a visually sumptuous treat in which the sounds of nature and Vipin Kumar PK's background score are fused in perfect harmony. All of it is, of course, heightened by Sivan's unmatched cinematographic skills, for which alone this film should be essential viewing.