‘God on the Balcony’ is a film by Biswajeet Bora, a filmmaker, screenwriter, editor and actor from the northeastern Indian state of Assam. Noted in particular in the Calcutta and Kerala festivals in 2020, he put on screen the true story of a poor man who could not save his wife who was seriously injured after wild elephants attacked his modest house.
Khagen Das (Harish Khanna) is a casual laborer who lives with his wife Numali (Pranami Bora) and teenage daughter Kuvali (Parinandhi Jima Sultana). The living conditions are rudimentary. There is no electricity, no paved roads, no easy access to school and even less to the hospital that opens during the day and closes at night.
The river, which cuts the territory in two, is an indispensable source for navigation, transportation of goods, fishing, and is opening up the area, but it is also a handicap due to its flooding and pollution. The animals occupy a place of choice in an omnipresent luxuriant nature and a rural society. There are the kind animals, the cows, the domestic goat that dies with Numali and its baby Matukan that Kuvali carries in his arms like a cherished child throughout the film, and the wicked animals, the birds of prey that wait for their moment, the ominous crows that caw and the wild elephants that we would have liked to see in action.
This closeness to the flora and fauna is well shown by an appropriate sound treatment (very good work by Jyoti Chetia) that gives a lot of authenticity to the story.
The filmmaker knows his native town, its local dialect and its musical and dancing folklore to the last corner of its roads. In such precarious communities, satisfying a need beyond daily survival is celebrated as a rare gratification. Thus, when Khagen Das was able to acquire a bicycle for his daughter, who incessantly asks for it to go to school, the joy is obvious and shared by the classmates who still go to school on foot.
For the Western spectator from developed countries, stuffed with gadgets to the point of Baudrillardian hypertelia, the bicycle refers to De Sica and his thief, to Monsieur Hulot, or to the bicycle of Kiarostami in ABC Africa in which it’s used to transport a baby, wrapped in a cardboard box, who has died of AIDS.
Nevertheless, the spectator tastes a new pleasure, that of marvelling at small things while he seeks increasingly strong sensations (jumping into the void without a parachute or accompanying Thomas Pesquet on his cosmic journey!)
The village festivals, the religious gestures mixed with the materiality of everyday life (Numali invokes Krishna and sprinkles holy water on the bicycle that will symbolically carry him to the pyre of his incineration at the end), and the blatant social inequalities (Khagen Das, shabby and indignant, delivers wood with his companions in the pouring rain to a rich landowner who is playing with his dog), mark a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots.
The latter is dominated by nature and fate. Naked you will be born and poor you will die. Biswajeet Bora has introduced the second part of the story in ‘God on the Balcony’ in something too conventional manner. After Numali’s fatal wounding and death at the entrance of the closed hospital, and the long wait for the dawn, Khagen Das ties her body to the bicycle and starts the painful return journey.
There, a couple of young journalists-photographers appear unexpectedly and intend to exploit the misfortune of the father and his daughter to make a scoop. The affair goes viral and the media takes over the story to show it on TV. The local governor intervened to calm the anger of the residents and to quell the political exploitation that was damaging to the ruling party. He promises to build a new, sturdier bridge to replace the crumbling bamboo bridge that is collapsing and tipping him and his yard into the water.
Fleeing the ultimate humiliation that the media would inflict on them, Khagen Das and Kuvali take the jungle paths to reach their destination and perform the funeral ritual to honor Numali’s body.
The film – ‘God on the Balcony’ – suffers from certain weaknesses. The editing is confusing in the first part of the story where linearity is unnecessarily sacrificed. The lack of means is obvious in the production. Some spectacular scenes were necessary, especially the one where Numali is injured. The two journalists fell into the river, lost their cameras and got out of the water with difficulty, but the cell phone that is supposed to be out of order still rings.
If the interpretation of Harish Khanna and Pranami Bora is good, it is less obvious coming from Parinandhi Jima Sultana. The end (intended by the production?) is too insistent and didactic. However, these criticisms should not overshadow the successful documentary aspect and the gripping and moving plot.
The filmmaker portraits in his movie, a socio-economic context of a region, his own, that is a microcosm of an entire country that is struggling to develop. Will God who is on the balcony or in the sky and in the quivering nature accompany the father and his daughter who turn their backs on their poor reality and move away towards new horizons?