The personal merges with the political and comes to a boil in Abhiroop Basu’s searing short film Meal. Featuring veteran actors Adil Hussain (Life of Pi, Lootera) and Ratnabali Bhattacharjee (Jonaki, Bombay Talkies) as a married couple engaged in a wordless domestic duel, the film becomes a potent look at the communal strife and social conflict that’s tearing apart the very fabric of present-day India. Meal is free of dialogue and communicates through various metaphors and subtle narrative glances, that evoke the neglect and disarray resulting as by-products of battles large and small, fueled by all-consuming hatred. Very aptly, the film’s production design makes the tiny cramped apartment almost resemble a war-torn battlefield.
Meal opens with Ratnabali standing still in the kitchen, looking straight ahead with wide unblinking eyes, as the camera ever-so-slowly creeps up towards her. There’s a blackening blemish on her face which, coupled with Adil Hussain’s bandaged hand which appears later, is indicative of the events that preceded the present moment. This unnamed couple also has a son, played by Avishek Jain, who is dressing up for school. The sound design amplifies her laboured breathing, coupled with the noise from some construction job taking place outside, and the steady hisses from her pressure-cooker which―much like her own temper―is almost ready to erupt.
Basu uses similar aural cues very ingeniously throughout the 11 minutes of Meal‘s running time, to convey the maddening din that plagues each character’s headspace. The way that his screenplay makes use of space to deftly sketch the interpersonal dynamics and straining relationships, with minimal fuss, is impressive and forms the heart of his film. For example, the first time that we are shown Hussain’s character and his father (Arun Mukhopadhyay)―an old and frail man no longer in control of his bodily fluids―DOP Deep Metkar frames them at two opposite poles of a wide shot, in two separate rooms with the wall in between, so as to emphasize the emotional distance between them.
Facial expressions and gazes offscreen are of key importance here, in the absence of verbal communication, and Metkar’s shot composition acknowledges the same. Sound bites from news reports inform us of an environment steeped in turmoil: shops and streets are being vandalized after an imposition of Section 144, which coincides with the commencement of the state board exams and thus endangers students travelling to exam centres. Basu’s curious juxtaposition of sound and image thus lends Meal to various interpretive possibilities. On the surface level, it can be seen as a tense and gritty recreation of a dysfunctional household ready to self-destruct, but the writing contains far more nuances than that.
While the past (in the form of the powerless elderly man) is left neglected without care, and the present fights among each other to ruinous ends, it is up to the educated youth of today to pick up the broken pieces―much like Avishek Jain literally does in Meal―and build a better future notwithstanding the weight of the heavy schoolbags on their little shoulders, that are outweighed by the burden of a fragmented nation. Because Basu’s film shows us that it is the young ones, depending upon the apparently-sensible grown-ups, who become the biggest unwitting victims when the adults lose sight of that which is essential in their pursuit of power and dominance.
ABHIROOP BASU’S MEAL (2018) IS CURRENTLY PLAYING ON MUBI INDIA.