Uski Roti is something of an odd duck: Slow cinema and yet not, narrative-driven and yet not, a matter-of-fact film of expressionistic images, alternately enthralling and a tough sit. I don’t tend to have a lot of patience for films like this, but there’s plenty of interest in Uski Roti.
I was taken, more than anything else, with the black and white cinematography. It reminded me a little of Begotten in its blown-out white landscapes. The lighting is so harsh that it makes the characters’ surroundings seem almost alien in their harshness. It makes a film that is on paper practically realist seem almost abstract. Where is the film set, besides a horizon line of metaphor? The people seem realer than the places they inhabit. I find that really interesting, the notion of down-to-earth characters in self-consciously constructed settings.
The film was the first directed by Mani Kaur, and one of the first shot by cinematographer K.K. Mahajan. You can feel their thrill for the possibilities of cinema throughout Uski Roti. This is, and I mean this as a compliment, very much a film made by people who are new to making them. There’s such excitement around the film’s disregard for traditional narrative or typical editing rhythms. (A bit of cutting taken straight from Breathless is a fun touch.) The shot excerpted above, which shoots out of the back window of a moving vehicle such that the window decal seems superimposed over the speeding image, was my personal favorite moment. It’s the sort of thing that can only come from a mind that’s been waiting to shoot their first feature since they were young, the kind of image that could only have been bouncing around in their brain for years.
The final shots, too, of the distraught Balo wandering a desolate, pitch-black landscape, seem like echoes from Kaur’s subconscious given form, the result less of decisive thought than of freeform train of consciousness. It’s a limber film, for all its potentially deadening pacing. Even the lengthy shot of flowing, muddy liquid has a painter’s grace. This is never a film bogged down by the literal.
I should also mention how it seems to prefigure Jeanne Dielman, to the point that I was mildly shocked to learn that Akerman’s better-known film came six years after this one. I think hers is the better work, but there are parallels to be drawn. Both are, shall we say, deliberately paced films about the tedium and misogynist dismissal endured by housewives. Uski Roti is more than a bit blunter than Jeanne Dielman, perhaps because it was directed by a man, who can only understand these issues as they are presented, rather than as they are lived. Still, Uski Roti is as close as a cishet man can get to truly compelling feminist cinema, in that it’s a little too tryhard for its own good.