VIFF review: Nikhil Mahajan's character study in Godavari offers thoughtful alternative to Bollywood fare

The story unfolds gradually along the banks of one of India's greatest rivers

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      For those used to the jumped-up pace and palette of bright colours of most Bollywood movies, it takes a while getting used to the only Indian film at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

      Director Nikhil Mahajan’s Marathi-language Godavari is a character study centred around a grumpy landlord’s relationship to the river of the same name.

      It all takes place in the crowded and ancient city of Nashik, which is about 140 kilometres from Mumbai.

      The film opens with the stressed-out, chain-smoking Nishikant (Jitendra Joshi) zipping around on a moped collecting rent from various tenants. This man seems irritated with everyone—his wife, his mother, and his senile grandfather, who repeatedly asks if the water in the river has touched Lord Hanuman’s ankles. When Nishikant’s daughter says she’s bored at home, Nishikant replies “me, too”.

      Things unfold slowly, amid the beats of Av Prafullachandra’s Indian songs, which amplify the misery of Nishikant’s existence. The gloomy mood is reinforced by the darkness of the apartment where Nishikant has fled to avoid his family.

      Imaginative camera work also does its magic, with longer shots from a variety of angles driving home how insignificant Nishikant's life has become.

      Two things happen to create new pressures on Nishikant. First, there’s an offer from a developer to purchase the family’s land holdings, which would require evicting his tenants. Then, there’s a disturbing medical diagnosis.

      This sets Nishikant on a spiritual journey in which the mighty Godavari River occupies centre-stage.

      The acting in Godavari is first-rate, most notably in Joshi’s fiery-eyed portrayal of the troubled Nishikant, but also in Priyadarshan Jadhav’s pensive and plaintive performance as his friend Kaasav. The mother, played by Neena Kulkarni, also shines with her subtle and authentic acting. This is Marathi arthouse cinema at its best.

      But for expat Indians used to the razzle-dazzle of a Salman Khan action movie—or even the dramatic suspense of a critically acclaimed Bollywood film like HaiderGodavari might strike them as a tad slow.

      To them, I say be patient. Stick with it. With fine Indian cooking, things turn out better when spices are given time to marinate.

      The same is true of the central character in Godavari—Nishikant just needs some time to evolve.

      Video: Watch the trailer for Godivari.
      The Vancouver International Film Festival will present the world premiere of Godavari. The film will be available online throughout the festival from October 1 to October 11. There will be two screenings: at 8:30 p.m. on October 4 at the Kay Meek Arts Centre and at 6:15 p.m. on October 10 at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward's.