Fable-like tale shot in rarely heard Kannada dialect may have a limited life, even within India. But elegiacal pic did win last year’s Golden Lotus prize for best feature in that country’s National Film Awards — the fourth such win for helmer Girish Kasaravalli. Comparisons to Satyajit Ray’s early village pictures are apt only in that there are no song-and-dance numbers and action operates both on realistic and symbolic levels. But such expectations can’t really help “The Island” get past its local headwaters, except as fine, old-fashioned fest fare.
The single-named Soundarya, who also produced, toplines memorably as Nagi, sturdy young wife of village shaman Ganappa (Avinash), more interested in upholding generations of local tradition, or at least in keeping things as they are, than in providing comfort or hope for his town-bred missus. The men have decided to stay on their island as the merry little isthmus connecting them to the mainland gets swallowed by the river Sharavati. Hubby’s well-wrinkled dad, Duggappa (Vasudeva Rao), is a true believer, having performed rituals for decades at a local site called Sita’s Temple.
The rest of the islanders have been given meager compensation for moving away, ahead of the monsoon and plans to flood the whole area, thanks to a massive dam project in lush Karnataka State. But granddad’s work, involving feathers and elaborate masks, won’t have much value where they have gone. Ganappa is soon caught between his father’s refusal to adapt and his wife’s essentially practical nature, and the triangle hits a deadly stasis as floodwaters rise.
Into this volatile setting steps villager Krishna (Harish Raju), back from a failed adventure in Calcutta and anxious to prove himself helpful. But as the ad-hoc family moves to higher ground, there is increasing sexual attention between Nagi and the handsome younger man — although there’s not quite as much going on as hubby starts feverishly imagining. Carnality, not to mention plain old fear, surfaces in the form of a ferocious tiger stalking the upper reaches of the island, culminating in a rainswept night spent with Nagi fighting to protect her tiny homestead while Ganappa simply pulls the covers over his head.
Pic’s most intriguing element is its ambivalent view of modern India — pragmatic, corrupt, and burdened with bureaucracy at every turn — versus a more primeval version, in touch with the cycles of nature but also imprisoned by superstition.
Rerecorded sound is OK, even if the music is often distorted, with lensing usually better than grainy quality of the film stock itself. Lengthy buildup will make some viewers want the floods to come, already. Kasaravalli has changed the ending of Norbert D’Souza’s novel from outright tragedy to something more hopeful, although insert shots from another location don’t quite sell the big, wet finish.