A Rifle and a Bag Review: Somi was once upon a time an idealistic young woman. As she says to her 5 year old son while sitting near a riverbank, she joined the naxals along with her husband to save the jungle, save democracy from capitalism and imperialism. But as filmmakers Isabella Rinaldi, Cristina Raithe and Arya Rothe reveal, the reality of their situation is far different from their ideals.
The system is always against them, as an active opponent when they were naxals, and as an ex-naxalite, in the trials and tribulations that come as a cause of that, the system is a passive opponent. In working with the system, the trials faced by these souls must be frustrating.
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The frustration must also be warranted, and while that is not explicitly stated, it is a looming shadow, evident within Somi and her husband. Having surrendered to the government and then forced to resettle in Maharashtra, Somi’s story is one very familiar to most people familiar with the basic tenet of storytelling – the story of starting over, which is personified in the form of Somi’s two children – a boy who needs to go to school and thus restart a future away from his parents’ chequered past, and a new child on its way. With that, a newer phase of parenthood consequently on the horizon.
However, as third-rate citizens living in contemporary India, their son cannot be admitted to school without the caste certificate of his father. An artifact that is impossible to acquire as it is present in Chattisgarh – the place from which Somi and her husband escaped from and getting back would mean imminent danger.
Rinaldi, Raithe and Rothe are very much interested in a minimalist portrayal. They are content to let the camera remain static while their subjects go about on their daily lives. But its in those close-ups, those dimly lit scenes of somi’s face or her husband’s face, lit by the fire, as their faces change in contemplation and the camera captures that beautifully.
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Reality is plenty subtle already, and as a documentarian, if your subject is at tune with their emotions, almost half of the work is done. There is an easy chemistry between Somi and her husband, 5 years younger than her, but their interactions are easy, relatable, and extremely telling. What is also telling is how the contemporary Indian administrative system becomes a hindrance in the path of their son’s future, a sentiment not shared by the government officials who are apologetic and friendly, but at the end have their hands tied due to the system.
As a deepening character study, A Rifle and a Bag is an interesting experiment. A documentary that doesn’t acknowledge the existence of a 4th wall and thus has the structure of almost a fictionalized narrative. Somi’s interactions with her parents and her husband as well as her own musings paint the picture of a past and an unknown world, the storytelling potent in its own simplicity.
Cristina Hanes’ cinematography ensures striking visuals, be it tightly shot close-ups, or far reaching horizons and vistas. The rustic environment of the habitation is in stark contrast to the familiarity by which Somi and her family and brethren move about in their daily lives – she is as proficient in handling a gun and explosives as she is in feeding and cooking and being a loving mother. These two seemingly disconnected sides come together to create an impressive and admirable character which is why it is hard to see this family inevitably fail. Their resigned acceptance, the shadow of frustration looming over it, and finally determined to forge a future for their son which is different and better than the one they are currently living brings a feeling of relatability mixed with joy and a healthy dose of dread.
This investment tides us over a few indulgent moments and at 87 minutes of runtime, the film feels a bit stretched. However, the viewers are invested in the narrative due to the writing and editing team of Hanes, Rinaldi, Raithe, Rothe, and Bitton. They give way to something that is not a conclusion but an inevitable and satisfying resolution.