In her sophomore short film, Ambiecka Pandit creates a kind of daze; it is a daze of confusion, the uncertainty of ascribing meaning to a gesture, a trembling unknowingness perched on the anvil of probabilities and intensifying wants. It dives headlong, fever-dream-like, into the juddering collision with unusual gestures and touches that spark a reckoning with oneself and the other. Like its pubescent protagonist, Sarang (Nishant Bhavsar), the film begins with tiptoeing around, hesitant and fumbling, struggling to carve out its interior self amidst the all-enveloping and repressing familial configurations. The noise of family and kin might be closing down on the film’s subjects all the time, but Sarang is able to invest in a parallel, hidden channel of communication with the older Mihir (Shivraj Waichal). This surreptitiously operating subset of forbidden impulses and attractions is what Sarang is pushed into inhabiting without reprieve once Mihir directs at him a physical encroachment at a swimming pool.

The film unfolds over a two-day span when two families are vacationing at the seaside. When the film opens, Mihir and Sarang share that familiar, easy, playful, and teasing bond that stems from a considerable time of knowing both each other and their families. They are comfortable around each other’s bodies until an episode leaves them bereft of the habitual beats of prior association. While they joke and Mihir guides Sarang with swimming, Mihir breaches sexual boundaries. Sarang is left unsettled and thoroughly befuddled as he moves away and retreats into the quietness of his room, processing the tumult within and seeking an anchorage to assuage the unbidden emotions engendered by Mihir’s action. It redraws the contours of Sarang’s relationship with Mihir and throws into disarray all past ways of looking at Mihir in a certain way. Suddenly, the rhythms of their friendship are hurled into alien terrain, which Sarang is unable to clasp onto. He can’t attach these affectionate displays to any recognizable signification of the dimensions of their friendship.

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One gets the impression that the older Mihir, with his clutch of experience of navigating the world, being in a position of privilege and power over Sarang by dint of age, finds his actions perfectly licensed and rationalized. However, what Mihir possibly perceives as stray advances of a sexual demonstrativeness toward Sarang, the latter does not find any vocabulary in which to articulate the emotional troughs and crests, the unanticipated surge and shifts within the feelings Mihir’s odd touch stirs.

The incident burgeons into a point of thorny contention between them, especially for Sarang, who initially just withdraws into a mute, cold, nonresponsive space as regards their interactions. He feels betrayed and enraged with Mihir. He takes to bed, sick and pretending to be asleep, as Mihir offers him a quick, brief caress. Aural textures of a few moments, sinuously alternating between accelerated pounding heartbeats and the vigorous lapping of waters, the latter functioning as a foreshadowing device, serve to embody Sarang’s perturbed psyche, awash with a newfound reorientation of viewing a relationship, him tugging at Mihir’s towel.

Being unable to fall back on or feign normalcy, he makes Mihir feel the brunt of his actions whenever the latter pushes forth one of their older mischievous exchange. Circumstances have radically been altered; Sarang gesticulates through his body language. Gradually, he seems to look keenly toward him to steer their relationship into a place whose groundwork he believes Mihir laid through his advances.

What emerges with effortless ease is the director’s gift for conjuring a private world within the public, locating and drawing out direct, unmediated, latent, and viscerally intimate conduits of unaddressed emotion amidst bustling social settings. The immediacy of the evolving emotional and physical urges that Sarang develops for Mihir is almost lacerating in terms of the literally parched sensations the film evokes. In this case, the families’ chatter frames the backdrop to most of the situations and silent impulses being unleashed. All the while, however, characters renegotiate and re-assess their interpersonal equations, stepping outside the outermost limits of confined expected behavior. The family unit, with its stressed regulatory binding role, finds itself both tested and allowed to prevail.

The scenes are charged and brim with hurt, longing, and aches that its subjects stumble at verbalizing, given the frameworks they operate within. So there is a lot of measured, carefully considered eliding in how they want to behave and what they want to really say that the characters, not just the two central characters, participate in. Yet, the characters’ disruptive tendencies, contravening the well-oiled demeanor, never stay too far behind. This dramatically escalating push-pull between permissiveness and deviance shapes the widening fissures within the mandated happy, harmless ‘normalcy’ of the families-holidaying-together structure. But Pandit walks on these eggshells of feelings that vacillate into sexual awakening with such confidence and the most pointed, acute understanding that the film is able to accumulate a tremendous trajectory despite deliberate abstinence from any expository patches.

Under the Waters is brave and unfettered in the sense it swiftly shrugs off any shyness of approach to its material. The anger and resentment that Sarang feels initially is feral, anxious to mete out some kind of indictment to Mihir; the deadpan, piercing look he has when he methodically ambles out into a site of admonishment captures the otherwise natural streaks of cruelty children can manifest.

Sarang’s near-hunger for a more intimate engagement with Mihir deepens into desperation, which is unmindful of its excesses and indifferent to consequence. His rapidly varying response to the incident that engenders the knotty queer desire at the heart of the narrative provides the film with its volatile energies. Pandit does not conceal or downplay the inherent muddle of emotions that budge and swing from its former positions when it comes to such encounters. The film immerses the viewer in the thrall generated by the touch, even as Sarang twists and turns in trying to fathom all the emotions and desires stoked into frantic motion.

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Practically owning the film, Nishant Bhavsar is searingly terrific, putting up a blisteringly honest, wholly unafraid performance that embraces Sarang’s early perturbation and maturing into demanding more, once he accepts the impact of the invitation in Mihir’s moves. In a film that mostly veers to approximating an internal state of being, mapped out across respective levels of a transition ( aided superbly by cinematographer Linesh Desai’s subjective framing that seems to occupy a close affinity and hinge on to the character’s deepest thoughts), Bhavsar taps into profound anguish and unspoken ecstasy of attraction. As Sarang’s uncontrollable instincts gather in urgency and recklessness, Bhavsar shoulders the overwhelming final few minutes just with his eyes alone that vainly, wretchedly wrestle for a smidgen of expression and heartfelt, open dialogue. Shivraj Waichal plays the atypical male denial with assured transparency.

Pandit and Anagh Mukherjee’s breathtakingly taut editing does not waste a single frame or needlessly exaggerate and stretch a moment. Pandit’s silken orchestration of Sarang’s inner tossing upheaval, his reaching out to Mihir, and being dealt with a stab of outright rejection carry the film along its magnetic path. With exquisite subtlety and lightness, she burrows into the crevices in the language of reciprocity and its lack thereof, what it means to read signals or cues of surpassing boundaries, and ultimately, the stripping bare of emotions to its severe, naked, and untethered selves. Scenes trickle into each other with charged undercurrents of yearnings and apprehensions. There is serene violence undercutting the everydayness of the situations projected. Notwithstanding the emotional haze that Sarang strains in coming to grips with, Under the Waters is accented with this limpid headiness that never quite diminishes, accruing on a destabilizing effect, nervously climbing up to an explosive climactic confrontation that leaves the viewer with a jolt, shoved into an abyss of palpable unease.

Under The Waters played at the Indian Film Festival Stuttgart (20-24 July, 2022) and IFFSA Toronto (August 11-21, 2022)

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