Director Mriganka Borah’s Riyaz is a sensitively realised and quietly absorbing account of a story of love between a blind poet and a widow. In this carefully rendered tale about the complexities of human morality, Ashim, a young poet and Karabi, living as a tenant in his house, finds themselves torn apart between their reconciliation and guilt.
Karabi is an internally decimated woman, with no past to return to and no future to anticipate. When asked about her future, she doesn’t have any clear answer as she fails to make any predictions. She is stuck in her past, and the only way she can relive it is via music. Ashim, on the other hand, doesn’t share a great liking for music but despite his lack of vision, he cynically perceives the world as moving forward and dislikes clinging to his tormented past. The film deliberately places this blind protagonist at the story’s focal point to examine a world, a society and draw a contrast between the ways of life.
In his story of experiencing his first love, Riyaz has convincing performances by Swagata Bharali and Soumar Jyoti Borah, some beautiful imagery, and an active soundtrack and raw vocals by Anjalika Phukan. And if this acknowledgement sounds generic, so is the craft of this movie which is even simpler in terms. But the question this straightforward narrative seeks to ask is not as easy, as they rise to some troubling complexities and moral ambiguity.
For most of the part, Riyaz is very brief in terms of its scope and its storytelling. It faithfully catalogues the emotions of the characters but the stakes never rise and the drama never amplifies for an impact. Ashim is closed and an emotionally reserved individual in conflict with himself. Karabi, although forgiving in nature, is to some extent somewhat reclusive as well and between their compassion and reluctance, the film raises important concerns about the nature of love and sin. But when it’s all said and done, you’ll probably wonder why the impact wasn’t greater.
Along with Ashim, the film also carves out a separate space for Karabi’s character to develop but we do not get a look inside her. Her existence and actions are always judged from the outside as to what she represents to Ashim, how the society perceives her — but never by her. As a viewer, I wanted to know what she thinks and feels beyond her past. But since we follow only Ashim’s point of view, some of this is unavoidable. And also this ambiguity helps the film from turning into a sentimental mainstream melodrama. So, we have reasons to assume that both shared affection for each other. Karabi did it as well, although perhaps without realising it, which is why she subsequently breaks down and expresses regret for what she has done.
Both the characters experience a deep conflict as a result of the emotional cataclysm near the end of the film, but the film does not commit to this ethical argument further and ends. And this makes Riyaz a film more about the characters and their choices rather than the idea it resists. In some ways, Riyaz is similar to Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis in that both films depict the blossoming of an unordinary story of love buried below a veil of ordinariness. However, social deviance can be either intimate or terrifying, and this film is neither which lends Riyaz its uniqueness.
Although the script underlines the presence of the ethical debate it is more focused on the thorny moral dilemma the characters encounter within the context of their story. She’s trapped in her past, looking for refuge in music in the present and he believes that the songs are not written just for him. He is also wilfully ignorant about the new expressive voice in his poetry. Their inhibitions are also interdependent. Karabi has nothing to hide, and the more she reveals about herself, the more she is drawn back to her past. And the more Ashim wants to open himself up, the more he is held back by his shame and his feeling of inferiority. They do, however, attempt to break free by taking one step at a time until their self-realization takes them back. They are like two tall trees against a wide sky but rooted to the ground. When the wind has stopped blowing, their emotional height is meaningless. They are near each other, but unable to unite. The film does not attempt to provide an answer to the questions it tries to ask, assuming there is one. But there is an explanation in the imagery that the film chooses to close with which is also incidentally the same that it opens with. Riyaz is a film worth watching; it’s the kind of film that stays with you for days.
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