A tender and delicately rendered fable of devotion and community intolerance, “The Man Beyond the Bridge,” Goa-based writer-director Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s feature debut, is as impressive for its humility as it is for its storytelling confidence. Emphatically humanist in its approach, the film explores the ramifications of a widowed forest ranger taking in a mentally ill homeless woman, even as his village gets worked up into a religious lather. Few, if any, Indian films have recently enjoyed a better festival run (the pic will next appear in Berlin’s Forum section), though most buyer interest will be in vid slots.
The setting — a bucolic forest region of Goa — serves as not merely a picturesque backdrop but an integral part of the life of forester Vinayak (Chittaranjan Giri), who leads a team caring for trees while futilely trying to fend off illegal logging. This intro contains many of the film’s essentials, from its subtle mise-en-scene to its portrait of a man trying to protect the vulnerable from greedy interlopers.
A widower, Vinayak lives alone in a modest abode apart from the main village, separated by a river spanned by a rope bridge, whose symbolism Shetgaonkar handles with characteristic nuance. His location proves especially attractive to a wandering and seemingly madwoman (Veena Jamkar), who clearly hopes to get at least a few meals without having to bother more townsfolk.
The back-and-forth between Vinayak, who initially spurns his uninvited guest, and the woman, meek but undeterred, plays out along familiar lines, but Giri’s genial performance resists any exaggerated reactions that could have tilted this toward farce. The breaking down of the lonely man’s defenses toward a clearly needy and similarly lonely woman occurs at the pace of everyday life, even as other narrative threads begin to materialize.
Most prominent is how the village patriarchs effectively browbeat the townspeople into paying and erecting a temple dedicated to a local deity. Since the project intrudes into precious forest land, Vinayak is no fan of the new religious wave consuming the town, firmly solidifying his outsider status. As the woman takes up residence in his house and more, Vinayak finds himself on a collision course with the growing fervor of an intolerant mob.
Shetgaonkar’s script, adapted from a story by author Mahabaleshwar Sail, complicates matters when Vinayak locks the woman inside his house — ostensibly for her protection and his own. Yet the act transforms her first abode in quite a while into a prison, and the ways in which the scenario flips a looming tragedy into something of a declaration of independence is right out of the best of Raoul Walsh.
Giri and Jamkar make quite a pair of nonconformists from opposite poles, generating an unexpected chemistry that proves crucial to the film’s warmth. Shetgaonkar and d.p. Arup Mandal draw a striking contrast between their protagonists’ sheer individualism and the crowd of villagers.
A lovely supporting score, filled with classical motifs by Debasish Bhattacharjee, hits the spot, while Sankalp Meshram’s editing is stately and assured. The film’s dialogue is spoken in the regional language of Konkani, one rarely heard in Indian cinema.