Achal Mishra’s new film, Ri, opens with a jaw-dropping shot, vistas of serrated skies bleeding into rugged heights. There is an immediate, staggering beauty Mishra summons; through his lens, the everyday takes on a humbling splendor all of its own. Designed as a fragmentary tapestry weaving together sights and scattered conversations in Ladakh, Ri is a highly conscious departure from the vein of films Mishra has been engaged in. Here, he wholly abdicates narrative in favor of a melange of moments strung together, determinedly leaning as far as possible from narrative beats.
The storytelling is subdued to the point of being nearly absent. It’d be unfair to accuse the film on this count since it makes it quite clear very early that tracing a plot line isn’t one of its concerns. But the problems with Ri start blowing up when Mishra takes the serene, haunting beauty inscribed in these landscapes and applies them into a thinly conceived framework. Without a shred of a doubt, these images, few fleeting and others elongated, gradually resemble something ornate but utterly lifeless. The intermittent flickers of life, dropped into the film through disconnected series of banter among unrelated people, come off as manufactured.
The camera glides into lanes, wending its way past houses, trailing people in the hour when everything is shrouded in blue. All of it looks exquisite; colorist Mahak Gupta’s work deserves mention for embedding the stunning frames in distinctive swathes and embodying a muted wistfulness. Large chunks of Ri is wordless, and even when there are the occasional dialogues, characters ponder the banal, prepare thukpa or mildly bicker about travel planning, But the vantage point the viewer gets to have is one that is at an emotional removal, tightened by visuals that are stubbornly untethered from human connection.
Mishra, who shot the film with Abhinandan Sharma, captured in an array of sweeping wide shots the quiet desolation of the place. Flocks of sheep trundle through so do men across fields that have increasingly gotten cemented over. The film is structured as a series of snapshots, skittering through nooks and crannies, presenting an ambient record of a place and its people that never attempts any sense of rigid correlation. The perspectives range from travelers to locals, though the film itself suffers from an inability to etch out these myriad voices. The film is built as loose and fluid, but it threatens to diffuse very quickly and slips into being an empty collation of images culled from varied visits to places in Ladakh, the sequencing of the shots stripped of significance.
Ri is purposefully lulled, but its sense of calm strikes as divertingly shallow than vested with gestures of truth. What is the film saying? Or is it even remotely bothered? Ri feels too blissfully complacent with the repetitive, tastefully manicured positioning it takes up. Even if it shifts in angles of viewpoints, the sublimity it seems to be looking for is undone by its own aesthetic turgidity. Some pluck berries, some hum sitting by a river stream. Faces dissolve into the engulfing expanse of the lakes. There’s someone carrying his luggage and another making coffee; two people wonder about the color of Ladakh. These characters drift through without quite registering their presence, no matter being obviously muted as intended.
The film seems driven by erratic whims that do not quite cohere together despite being occasionally individually arresting. Even if the shots are elegantly sculpted, with a breathtaking understanding of composition, their sober magnificence tends to fade out in our sensory impressions. As Ri attempts a sort of transcendent close with Tajdar Junaid’s show-stopping score, the viewer is not so much lifted as left bewildered by this piece that’s less a film and more of an exhibition hewn together with any underlying thread missing.