Among the words used to describe the movie Liar’s Dice during its development stages—mundane, boring, simple and linear.
No offence was meant for writer and director Geethu Mohandas, since she was the one using these words. Liar’s Dice, which will be shown in the Indian competition section at the forthcoming Mumbai Film Festival (17-24 October), appears to borrow conventions from the road movie and thriller genres, but it is an echt arthouse depiction of a woman’s quest for her missing husband. The actor-turned-film-maker’s feature debut follows Kamala, who leaves behind her village in Himachal Pradesh to look for her missing husband in the hostile plains below. Little is said and much left to the viewer’s powers of observation as Kamala, played by Geetanjali Thapa, sets out along with her young daughter and a lamb and becomes increasingly dependent on the assistance of a man of mystery whom she meets along the way. Nawazuddin, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is a keeper of secrets—a gambler, an itinerant and possibly an army deserter, who eyes Kamala with some interest and extends his brusque hold over her as the journey unfolds.
Why the lamb? It’s one of many unexplained elements in a movie that doesn’t try to simplify its central quest. The slim story, with a neat sting in the tail, contains a wealth of detail about the ways in which working-class people live, work and travel. Rajeev Ravi’s dexterous camerawork, the ordinariness of the cast, the real locations, and the conversational dialogue combine to create what Mohandas calls an “anthropological” movie in which the fact that nothing seems to be happening is the point. “Detail can be a discovery in itself,” says Mohandas, who has acted as a child and adult in Malayalam and Tamil movies. “I designed the film to be mundane—it is easy enough to show a journey in a few travelling shots, but I didn’t want to do that. The only way to show the angst of this woman was through her journey. I don’t want to take away from that by showing adventure. Sometimes, nothing needed to happen, it needed to be long and boring. You don’t need to see the plot thickening, to have an up-and-down scale in the narrative.”
Liar’s Dice depends heavily on the wary concert between the two leads, with occasional back-up provided by adorable child actor Manya Gupta. On-the-up talent Thapa is familiar to film festival regulars for her appearances in ID and Monsoon Shootout, neither of which has been released. Siddiqui doesn’t need a covering letter any more—his intensity and intelligence have enlivened such films as Kahaani, Gangs of Wasseypur and The Lunchbox. “You have to leave Nawaz alone, he has to be on his own trip,” Mohandas says. “He listens a lot, asks very pertinent questions, and completely trusts his director.”
The relative anonymity of the cast helped the crew shoot the movie in under a month in December in 2011, mostly on the fly and without permission from the railways or state transport authorities. A co-production between Mohandas’ company, Unplugged, and Jar Pictures, Liar’s Dice is the proverbial small small film, made on a tight budget after dispiriting meetings with producers who were more interested in the director’s casting choices than her story treatment ideas. “I would often get meetings because of my husband,” says Mohandas, who is married to Ravi. She didn’t have easy answers for another oft-asked question, “How is a woman with a child and a lamb going to sell?” She used the good notices for her acclaimed short Kelkkunnundo (2009) at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) to secure a €10,000 (around Rs.8.45 lakh now) script and project development grant from the IFFR’s Hubert Bals Fund.
Liar’s Dice , which was actually written before Kelkkunnundo , shares with the short film a spirit of inquiry into the issues and conflicts facing ordinary people. Kelkkunnundo examines the effects of urbanization through a young girl who is blind from birth. Liar’s Dice confronts the human cost of the impact of migration through the intertwining stories of Kamala and Nawazuddin, whose journeys and choices are determined by their socio-economic circumstances. “There is a strong political undercurrent in the movie,” Mohandas says. “It’s about a dog-eat-dog world in which there will always be a prey and a predator.”
Liar’s Dice will be screened on 18 October at BIG Metro Screen 3 at 8pm and on 19 October at Cinemax Versova Screen 4 at 5.45pm.