The minimalist rigor and formalist attractions of Gurvinder Singh’s debut, “Alms of the Blind Horse,” are equally prominent in his follow-up feature “The Fourth Direction,” yet so, too, are glacial pacing and lack of drive. Revisiting his ancestral Punjab, the helmer ineffectually brings two rural stories together to evoke tensions in the northern state just before and after the Golden Temple massacre in Amritsar, which pitted militant Sikhs against an overweening Indian army. While he succeeds in capturing the crushing unease of the countryside, full of uncertain, frightened glances, Singh neglects dramatic construction, jeopardizing audience empathy. Apart from artier-weighted fests, there’s no direction for the film to go.
Part of the problem is the bookended structure, used to combine two stories by writer (and co-scripter) Waryam Singh Sandhu — they simply don’t work together, largely because the end fails to add depth to the main tale, and consequently weakens emotional impact. The setting is 1984, and begins soon after the assassination of Indira Gandhi (not referenced). Two Hindu friends, Jugal (Kanwaljit Singh) and Raj (Harnek Aulakh) miss the last train to Amritsar. A Sikh man (Tejpal Singh) is in the same position — in desperation, the trio push aside the carriage guard (Gulshan Saggi) and board a train meant to leave without passengers.
They’re not alone: The guard already allowed two young Sikhs to make the journey, so together with a couple of train employees, the group sit uneasily in the small compartment, warily staring at each other. From this point the pic jumps back five months (not signaled): The moon turns dew drops into silvery fairy lights as Jugal, his wife and young daughter walk a muddy rural road. They’re lost looking for the nearby village, yet are frightened to ring the bell of an isolated farmhouse, uncertain who they’ll encounter. Necessity forces action, and to their relief the occupants turn out to be family friends. Joginder (Suvinder Vikky) begrudgingly shows them the right path, and Jugal is promptly forgotten about until the pic’s end with an unsatisfying return to the train.
Now the focus is on Joginder and his extended family, including mother (Gurpreet Kaur Bhangu), wife (Rajbir Kaur), and two kids. Everyone is on pins and needles — Sikh militants roam the area at night to escape government forces. Unfortunately the family’s dog, Tommy, keeps barking whenever he hears a stir outside the compound walls, and the militants fear they’ll be given away by the sound. They try to force Joginder to kill the pooch, but the family just can’t part with their pet. The next day the army barges in, ransacking the place looking for proof of collaboration, which they don’t find.
If only director Singh had built up the tension, this could have been a disturbing evocation of the way ethnic strains and government brutality left average citizens constantly on edge. Trapped between two extremes, the majority of the populace learned to fear every stranger, so a turban, or the lack of one, became instant visual signifiers of danger. Instead, the director deadens the sense of apprehension (and relegates injustice to little more than a footnote) through his concentration on over-precise staging that robs the pic of any immediacy.
D.p. Satya Rai Nagpaul, who also lensed “Alms,” can’t be faulted: His beautiful compositions are flawlessly lit and carefully staged. Landscapes in particular are stunning, not just the glistening dew mentioned earlier but a memorable monsoon sequence, the winds turning rice paddies into waves of jade while across the path, corn stalks bow to the rain’s force. Yet apart from a dynamic scene of Sikh protestors on tractors and horseback, the human element is so rigidly controlled that viewers remain at a distance. In the end, Tommy the dog makes the most emotional impact; surely that wasn’t the direction the helmer meant to follow.