Reviewed by: Sunil Chauhan

"A meditative twilight piece best seen late at night." | Photo: Courtesy of Doc/Fest

A promising feature debut from Ekta Mittal, Absence is an otherworldly exploration of urban migration, specifically the movement of rural labourers from Indian villages to urban cities. Absence considers what remains when they leave their families, often with little contact or, in some cases, without returning. A photo of an unnamed man is passed around between strangers, offering an intriguing set-up for a poetic kind of investigative documentary, except we never know who the man is. Here, it becomes more fascinating just to see what the reactions are, teasing out a layer of ambiguity and slipperiness that Mittal mines to poetic effect.

Mittal understands how to create mood – Absence is held together by an eerie, unsettling texture. She doesn’t trace labourers’ stories – she is more interested in capturing slivers of village life. It’s here, in its first half, where the film is most alive. An interview with a woman making chapatis becomes unexpectedly transfixing, as we see her kneading and moulding dough. Recurring shots of left shoes become a poetic motif. A story of women dying after bringing back firewood from the jungle further underlines the dreamlike, Apichatpong Weerasethakul-ish air of the supernatural that pervades the film. It wears it lightly, working as a tapestry of images and non-diegetic sound (cicadas, Muslim calls to prayer, peculiarly rhythmic trains), though recurring snippets of enigmatic interviews help push the film into a borderline transcendental piece. It doesn’t try to present a portrait of rural life unfettered by outside influence – as a woman cooks in one scene, a film starring Bollywood legend Amitabh Bhachchan plays on a TV screen. In one of its most arresting, quirkiest moments, we see a dancing doll moving repetitively under neon light.

A meditative twilight piece best seen late at night (one man even talks about not being able to sleep), Absence ends up pushing a little too hard at turning itself into a sensory experience, over-using a choral piece on the soundtrack and forgetting the human element. Mittal foregoes her subjects in favour of pure landscape imagery that doesn’t quite captivate without the narration that previously led the action, it moves into a wholly abstract sequence. It’s an undeserving end for a film that’s otherwise superb on people and place.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2019
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A lyrical portrait, inspired by Indian poet Shiv Kumasi Batalvi, of the people left behind when men leave to work in big cities.

Director: Ekta Mittal

Year: 2019

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: India


Doc/Fest 2019

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