'Uljhan': The accidental lessons of life

Ashish Pant’s debut feature highlights the class, gender and socio-economic differences in Lucknow’s educated elite

A still from the film
A still from the film

Garima Sadhwani

In the programming package of this year’s Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles as well as the New York India Film Festival, Ashish Pant’s debut feature Uljhan/The Knot lives up to its title. It revolves around the dilemmas faced by a young couple that gets involved in a car accident, leaving a stranger badly injured.

“It’s truly a labour of love,” says Pant of his independent film. He started working on the film’s script five years ago, and he gives credit to a platforms like the NFDC Film Bazaar for helping him meet his producer Kartikeya Narayan Singh who eventually helped him realize his dream. “I got the confidence that I could not only raise money, but that this could indeed be a movie worth pursuing,” he adds. Post production, the film was also chosen by NFDC for a “work-in-progress” lab where it was fine-tuned by notable editors and critics. It was part of the prestigious NFDC Goes To Cannes programme last year at the first virtual edition of Marche du Film Online (Cannes Film Market Online) where it was pitched to international festival programmers, distributors and film representatives.

Pant says that the film has its roots in his childhood, when his own family was involved in a car accident. The incident left behind a strong impression on his mind, something that was hard to shake off. He knew he’d have to resolve it by harnessing it creatively.

“Within seconds of the accident, our car was surrounded by people banging on our windows, telling us to come out and they were angry. I was just seven, and I was petrified,” he recalls. The very image that birthed the idea for the film, wasn't included in the film, but the questions it raised were. “Why was there a mutual distrust, this fear of people outside the car and this animosity towards people in the car?” asks Pant.

These questions are also what led to Pant using motifs like doors and windows in the film, signifying the idea of crossing the borders that we’ve constructed for ourselves, around ourselves. The idea was to place the audience into the shoes of the middle class and ask them what they would have done had they been in the same situation.

Pant thinks the film wouldn’t have been made if class and gender roles and biases didn’t exist. He believes it’s only because the husband can push his wife around that the film moves ahead gains momentum. But by talking about these biasest, the director wants the audience to understand how the society and circumstances colour everyone’s lives and decisions.

Interestingly, the director hasn’t used brighter colours in the first half of the film. “I wanted to show the journey of a woman becoming a mother, from an overprotective bubble to slowly opening up to people and embracing life,” he adds. This journey, however, isn’t described in as many words in the film, which is why Pant wanted to visually render it and chose a darker palette of colours.

The setting of the film also plays an important role in “revealing the true essence” of the characters, says the director. Set in Lucknow, Pant’s hometown, the film transitions between different dialects of Hindi and Awadhi to highlight the socio-economic differences.

For one, Pant feels that he got lucky to find a team of creative and kind individuals who made this film a life changing experience for him, and fun too. He recalls the day there was a monkey on the set. “We were filming for a comic scene, it was impromptu. There was a beautiful tangy orange tree on the location, and I wanted to include it in the script, so we decided that a monkey would climb the tree and that would upset our character, but the monkey was impossible to manage.” He remembers spending a quarter of the day just trying to control the monkey for a shoot. Another anecdote that he recalls from the sets of the film is when they were shooting in the railway colony and could only shoot in the small window when there were no trains or engines running nearby. “It was stressful, but we made a fun day out of it,” he says.

Actor Vikas Kumar agrees with Pant. He says, “Working on Uljhan was the best experience I've had on a film set. Two months of hard work, many learnings, and a whole lot of love.” The appreciation for each other seems to be mutual among the film’s cast and crew. Actress Saloni Batra says, “Uljhan is one of the most enriching and experiential journeys I've had while performing in front of the camera. I am grateful and elated to have gotten a chance to collaborate with such a talented crew.”

Pant says that the lifecycle of a film isn’t really complete until the audience watches it and reacts to it, and he’s thankful that festivals like IFFLA and NYIFF have made it happen for him. “I'm grateful to these festivals for selecting the film and giving it a platform to reach people,” says he.

Pant has already started working on his next film, which is about a man who has to leave New York and return to Lucknow to an estranged family, after his father suffers a minor stroke. His idea is to question the expectations surrounding masculinity. He’s also working on the pilot of a TV series, set in the world of finance in Manhattan.

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