In an excellent essay about the 1944 film A Canterbury Tale, movie historian and director Peter von Bagh suggested that light and time were the two most important subjects of cinema. Watching Shyam Benegal’s 1985 film Trikal recently, I was reminded of this idea. One of the main themes of Benegal’s film is the continuing hold of the past on the present: set in the Goa of 1960, on the verge of being “liberated” from the Portuguese, it is the story of a family trapped between a grand history and an uncertain future. But on a formal level, its most striking quality — one that consistently enhances the narrative — is Ashok Mehta’s camerawork and use of lighting, among the best I’ve seen in a Hindi movie.
Mehta, who died a few months ago, was a highly respected cinematographer, noted for his work on Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen and Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane (the latter had a magnificently show-offish nightmare sequence shot in black and white). In Trikal he composed some stunning interior shots using candlelight, which plays a big part in generating the film’s dominant mood: that of an intimate chamber-drama in which groups of people play out their mini-tragedies and mini-comedies in an enclosed, isolated setting. This lighting brings a distinct character to the ancient house — full of secrets — and creates a world that seems older than it actually is.
But the assuredness of Mehta’s camerawork is obvious right from the opening sequence, in which we see a man literally journeying into the past. The middle-aged Ruiz Pereira (Naseeruddin Shah in a small sutradhaar role) is revisiting his Goan village Lotli after 24 years. The taxi — his time machine, so to speak — passes vistas that are new to him, including roads built for the recent Commonwealth conference. Music, photography, acting and writing combine to very good effect: as the cab moves from open, sun-lit roads to canopy-shaded ones, shadows play across Ruiz’s face and long tracking shots from inside the car give us his dreamy-eyed view of his “watan”. Shah’s subtle performance in this short role allows us to see the years almost literally falling away from Ruiz’s face; as the cab draws into Lotli he looks rapt and boyish. Vanraj Bhatia’s lilting score is a reminder that the Benegal-Bhatia artistic collaboration is among the most underappreciated in our cinema. And there is Shama Zaidi’s dialogue. My village is like a cluster of flowers, Ruiz muses: if you don’t understand its history, the story inscribed on it, it will only look like a beautiful, delicate bouquet. The culture associated with it will gradually fade away, like old memories.
Well-travelled, clearly a man of the world, Ruiz is nonetheless nostalgic about the world of his youth, and much of that youth was spent around the moneyed Souza-Soares clan. Leaving behind the signs of a modernising world, he instructs the driver to take the old, rough road and soon arrives at a haveli now fallen to ruin; he enters the darkened doorway, and as his voiceover continues the light around him changes, becoming lush and warm, and the film makes an elegant transition into the past — in a long, amusing sequence we are introduced to the events and people of 24 years earlier (including Ruiz’s younger self).
This a great opening sequence — where light and time play off each other wonderfully — and the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to it: there is a hurried, incomplete feel to Trikal, there are more subplots than the narrative can accommodate, and we don’t get enough time with all the characters. But those first 20 minutes can’t be faulted, and despite the film’s minor flaws, its remarkable visual quality is sustained right until the end. So evocative is the lovely, ghostly light of Mehta’s candles that long after the film is over one can imagine the spirits of its characters still bickering and making toasts and partying in that creaky old house.