DAAI (UNCLE) – Review
Director: Monuj Borkotoky
Length: 19 minutes
The short film industry is a saturated market and countless films pass by like a spark and go unnoticed. But from time to time, a short comes by that not only leaves a long lasting impression on the viewer but is also on the same level (visual-wise) as that of a feature film. The short film in question is ‘DAAI (UNCLE)’ which was screened in various international film festivals (and won awards) in 2018. Recently, on April 19, it premiered on YouTube for the public to watch and it has already garnered more than thirty thousand views and significant critical attention.
Directed by Monuj Borkotoky, this Assamese-language short film follows a simple village man (Devi Borkotoky) who everybody knows as Daai, meaning Uncle. Daai is a dreamer, an artist. He performs Bhaonas, which are Assamese folk plays, in his village. He helps out his niece, with whom he has a special bond, with her poem recitation. When the authorities declare that girls should not perform in the Bhaonas, Daai is especially irked. He brings it to himself to fight for the women to be able to essay the women’s roles. He helps out in the field. With no stable job, he goes from place to place to help out his friends. His sister-in-law berates him continuously to find a permanent job, guilt tripping him for letting people ‘take advantage of him’. It may seem as a rebuke but it comes from a place of love. She sees what kind of man he is and knows that men like him will not stand well in the eyes of the society.
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But Daai is in his middle ages, his youth is behind him and he continues to be passionate about his art. We see him recite poems late at night. When he cackles like a maniac in the middle of a recitation, we see the children get intimidated by this spectacle and run away. He is taunted by faceless men for being politically involved and yet not holding a stable job or a steady income. He is a laughing stock among some people and a saviour to others.
But there are no villains in this story. Daai cannot change himself even if he wanted to. We see him in a last effort, to perhaps find a bride, get married, and live the life of a husband. What happens next is either tragic or hopeful, depending on the viewer.
People like Daai are not meant to be tied down to one place, one household, one job. His service is meant for the whole community, not just a single family. If it were earlier times, it is easy to imagine him not as a warrior fighting in the frontline, but the artist that replenishes and heals the soldiers back in the camps, through performance.
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Devi Borkotoky is phenomenal and wonderfully natural in his portrayal of this dreamy artist. His face and especially eyes convey much without him speaking. The cinematography is on the same impressive level as the visuals are ravishing. The beautiful shots of the fields, the sun, the grass and the river look like paintings or frames from classic Satyajit Ray films. It is clear to see that the cinematographer is not here to play but takes their work rather seriously. The music and score are honey for the ears. The storytelling is very heavily rooted in its sense of place and time. We never lose context of the environment and why the characters behave the way they do. As a result, this short can also be a good companion piece for anthropological observations.
Bina Patangia is fierce as the sister-in-law Podumi, who shows tough love to the occasionally wandering Daai. Ranjita Kashyap, playing the niece Pokhi, is sweet and competent, although she could do with being more expressive with her face. Many of the scenes are heavy on conversations, which is not bad in itself, but come off as something meant simply for exposition to the audience and to impart information. The talking can, as a result, seem almost theatre-like.
But these are minor errings and they fade away in the face of the commendable central performance of Borkotoky, the beautiful visuals, and masterful storytelling. This author enthusiastically waits to see the next project of the promising young director (and actor) Monuj Borkotoky.