As a former history student, and as someone with a life-long love of history, it is perhaps not surprising that I adore decorated manuscripts, those carefully planned out and written texts which were often decorated – or “illuminated” when touches of gold or silver were added – with, amongst other things, historiated initials (which often contained little stories themselves in the margins of the greater text). And The Eclipse of Taregna is the film equivalent, I think, of the manuscript illumination, telling a tiny story against the backdrop of a much larger canvas.
Here’s the main story, the true story, the manuscript, if you will: in 2009, the residents of the tiny backwater town of Taregna suddenly found themselves thrust into the limelight, when it was announced that their home was going to prove to be the best place to view what was predicted to be the best eclipse of the 21st century. There was some concern over the safety and well-being of the throngs of visitors who, it was anticipated, would descend on the village, not only because the village was lacking in some of the basic amenities, but also because it was also smack dab in the heart of an area in which Maoist rebels (who claim to be fighting for the rights of tribal peoples and rural poor) are operating.
Against this backdrop is set one beautifully illuminated historiated initial, a small story within the larger story of The Eclipse of Taregna. It’s the tale of Mr. Pathak (Surendra Rajan), a retired engineer. Mr. Pathak is gradually losing his eyesight to glaucoma, he’s seemingly lost his son to the rebel cause, and he’s already lost any interest in life, so when the news of the eclipse is announced, he doesn’t share the enthusiasm of his neighbours who are excited to find themselves, well, rather at the centre of the Universe when it comes to the eclipse. To the postman sharing sweets in honour of the event Mr. Pathak grumbles that it will just overload an already strained electrical system.
And yet – when his grandson Roshan (Purav Bhandare) shows some curiosity and excitement about the eclipse, trying to understand it, Mr. Pathak quietly fixes the model Roshan builds in order to understand how the eclipse works, and then gives him his precious globe to replace the apple Roshan has chosen to represent the Earth. Mr. Pathak comes to realize that his grandson needs someone to stand in for his absent father, to help him understand, to encourage his curiosity, to nurture Roshan’s dream of becoming an engineer – like his grandfather.
The Eclipse of Taregna is a perfect, small film, taking the story of one tired, ailing man and setting it, like a jewel, in the backdrop of the larger events happening around him. Everything in director and writer Rakesh Chaudary’s short film has a place and a purpose, but like the finest clockwork, it all works beautifully without your being truly aware of how meticulously it has been crafted, from the story, to the acting, to the sound, to Santosh Vasandi’s warm and luminous cinematography. Vasandi does one of those rare things: he makes us see Taregna, makes it real for us. As Mr. Totally Filmi said, “With cinematography like this, who needs 3D?”
Purav Bhandare is delightful as Roshan, dutifully helping his grandfather, intensely curious about the events unfolding in his little town. Surendra Rajan takes Mr. Pathak from indifference to finally discovering a pinhole of joy in life, despite the glaucoma that is stealing his vision and causing him suffering.
And it’s precisely in his worst moment of suffering that we can see the true art and skill that went into the making of this film: the intense sound of the fan over his bed, the blurred image, these combine to allow us to experience what Mr. Pathak is feeling: intense, searing, painful. In an instant, we understand what he is going through, and feel so much compassion towards him – so much so, that when we later share his small moment of joy at seeing the eclipse with Roshan, we feel that all the more intensely, too.
In ancient times, eclipses were one if those astronomical events that held great portent. If The Eclipse of Taregna portends what’s coming from a new generation of Indian filmmakers, then I can only wish that all my film-going experiences would be this illuminating and joyful. Mostly, The Eclipse of Taregna was one of those rare things: a film that made my heart swell with the joy of having seen it, and that made me wish I could see it again. And again.