Crumbling walls. Broken stairwells. Damp floors covered with overgrowth and rot. Such is the haunting world of decaying memories which the 80-year-old Jonaki returns to in her sleep, perhaps searching for some sort of closure to her lifelong unfulfilled hopes, dreams, and desires. Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s astounding sophomore effort Jonaki was inspired by his own grandmother, who lay in a coma for 4 days before passing away. It is a film borne out of the director’s reimagination of what his grandmother experienced in the final moments of her life, as she lay in her trance, inaudibly murmuring to herself. Abstract by design yet intimate in effect, Jonaki manages to plumb the depths of memories and dreams and captures their fleeting coherence with such authenticity and profound beauty that only very few can match.
There’s a popular belief that one’s life flashes by before their eyes as they are about to die. The titular character in Jonaki experiences the same, reminiscing about her life while lying unconscious, thereby fusing memories with dreams.
The film begins with a close-up shot of Jonaki (played effortlessly by the experienced Lolita Chatterjee) waking up in the house where she spent her adolescent days with her parents. She finds her once familiar abode now covered with rust and mold, accompanied by the sounds of a ticking clock and cooing pigeons. The camera lingers deliberately during these initial few frames, absorbing in the environmental details, allowing both Jonaki and us viewers to slowly adjust to this strange reality we find ourselves in. We are gradually introduced to the rest of the people in her life, beginning with her father (Sumanto Chattopadhyay), a botanist apparently studying the effects of classical music on plant life.
Her mother (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee) worries about the father overworking himself as he awaits recognition for his research from a university in England. She is also a strict authoritarian, sternly rebuking the 19-year-old Jonaki for meeting her lover on the sly, a Christian boy wordlessly portrayed by a very natural Jim Sarbh. It is an unfortunate situation, but one also very typical of Indian households in the early 20th century, where Jonaki’s marriage has been fixed by her family to a much older man who—despite being from an affluent background—is a total stranger to her.
A lot has been said about the film’s pace and its distinct brand of visual storytelling, the seeming absence of strong narrative threads or the use of metaphors and symbolism within the images presented. While some have applauded the rich, immersive cinematography, others have complained about the threadbare plot and being frustrated while trying to decipher the film’s messages. Parallels have been drawn, inevitably, to European arthouse masters like Sergei Parajanov and Andrei Tarkovsky, especially since the latter’s The Mirror (Zerkalo)  comes to mind almost immediately upon watching Jonaki.
But perhaps the most striking quality of the film that warrants such bold comparison has to be Sengupta’s editing pattern, wherein he sculpts through time as masterfully as Tarkovsky himself, allowing the frames just enough space to breathe and inspire contemplation. The key thing to remember here is that almost the entire film takes place within a dreamscape, depicting a state of (un)consciousness during a coma where images and words often tumble back and forth in chaos.
Writer-director Aditya Vikram Sengupta employs a series of carefully-constructed oneiric images that take us on a trip through Jonaki’s subconscious.
The film almost forfeits any sense of linear causality in its narrative structure and rightfully progresses through episodic visions, as the old woman relives incidents and experiences from her life. We see her peeling oranges with her lover in a park, knitting a white wedding gown under a staircase and also sitting dejected on her marriage bed as her newlywed husband rambles on, oblivious to her pain. Sengupta makes an interesting choice here by having Lolita Chatterjee play the role of Jonaki across time, and not using different actresses to depict her teenage and adult years, essentially keeping the character time-constant within her dream. And the veteran actress lives up to the challenge by displaying her impressive range, from blushing like a teenager to breaking down in resignation and despair as an adult. Apart from the dreamscape, the only scenes set in the physical reality of the present show us Jonaki’s lover now grown old (played by Burjor Patel) in a search for his dearly beloved throughout the city—one which concludes the film on a rather heartbreaking note.
However, Jonaki is neither a surrealistic Jodorowsky ride nor a Bergman film laden with metaphors. Thus it can largely be a fruitless experience trying too hard to intellectually engage a film that was designed to stir up feelings in the subconscious, more than in the conscious plane of mind. Our dreams are usually composed of vast intricate collages of things we have seen and emotions we have felt at different points of our lives. We never question the plausibility of what we see while we dream, even if these images may appear incoherent upon waking up and scrutinizing. The end result often appears as a chimerical set of visions that may elude logical thinking or explanation. So why should this old woman’s comatose dreamland be one of concrete meaning and rationality? Why should we necessarily expect to find much rhyme or reason or crystal clarity behind what she sees?
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That isn’t to say that the film is completely devoid of symbols and metaphors, but only that looking for “hidden meanings” shouldn’t be one’s primary aim while experiencing the film. Oranges are made a recurring motif throughout, and akin to the way our memories often fixate upon a particular place, object, sound or smell from our childhood, oranges seem to harbor a lot of intimate nostalgia for Jonaki. Not surprising at all, considering the fact that she used to spend a lot of time with her lover in an orchard, peeling away oranges while feeding them to each other. It is also evident from the film that her dad suffered from severe depression, exacerbated by his research not finding any support anywhere. The concept of depression being so hard to grasp and visualize—and being so misunderstood especially during the early 20th century—perhaps explains Jonaki’s subconscious symbolizing it as a bulbous growth on her dad’s forehead, one that keeps growing as his health continues to decline.
A respirator mask on Jonaki’s face is shown to be denying her the taste of food, a sign of the aging woman’s suffocation within this marriage she’s trapped in. Sengupta uses a lot of other recurring motifs as well to paint his picture of Jonaki’s life—such as a piece of music that plays at different critical junctures, a paper origami bird that Jonaki gifts her lover and of course, fireflies. The title of the film Jonaki—apart from being the name of the protagonist—is also the Bengali word for fireflies, which are used throughout the film to signify death as per the popular Japanese folktale about souls of the dead turning into fireflies.
The exquisitely framed shots that resemble moving paintings are often held long enough to allow us to luxuriate in their beauty, while the sparse use of dialogue ensures that our state of reverie stays unbroken.
DOP Mahendra Shetty, along with Aditya Vikram Sengupta, does an outstanding job of executing such a large number of meticulously-composed static shots, utilizing mostly low-light photography and a bleak color palette. With so much about the film worthy of praise, the sound design may have to settle for being the unsung hero, as it subtly and assuredly weaves its magic through every crackle of fire and drip of water, every rustle of leaves and creak of the stairs that together transport us to this decaying house in a world gone by. In an interview, the 35-year-old director said, “I wanted the viewer to feel the air and get the smell of the place – I wanted them to get the dampness of the locations.” And it is precisely the film’s imaginative soundscape, working seamlessly in conjunction with the visuals, that facilitates such thorough immersion.
French auteur Robert Bresson once said in an interview, “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it. I’d rather feelings arise before intellect.” It is a quote that perfectly encapsulates the essence of watching and appreciating everything that Jonaki attempts to do. Because despite inevitably being labeled as ‘arthouse’ and ‘avant-garde’, Jonaki can actually be one of the most accessible cinematic experiences ever conceived—if only we let it. Because it transcends speech and communicates through the universal language of cinema, using dreams and memories (as opposed to using events and circumstance) as building blocks—phenomena that every single human soul has encountered and understands deeply. The experience here, instead of being that of following a set narrative, is primarily that of being inside a shared dream. Inside this kaleidoscopic theatre of dreams, the dying Jonaki’s hopes and fears materialize as rot and decay—as she traverses a lifetime’s worth of forsaken memories—and we are humbly invited along for the ride.