Ghost of the Golden Groves (India, 2019) [LIFF 2019]

Comprised of two tales set deep in the Shonajhuri forest in rural Bengal, this fantastic debut feature from Aniket Dutta and Roshni Sen (playfully credited under the moniker of Harun-Al-Rashid) can be loosely categorized as folk horror but foregrounds experimentation over eeriness. The creators of Ghost of the Golden Groves have taken their cue from such art-house directors as Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Bi Gan in that a specific region gradually distorts or dissolves into a meta-realm where time and space are displaced to an eclectic soundtrack of folk, jazz, rock, and ambient compositions. In short, it’s quite a trip.

Both stories are set in the 1960s with the first, ‘The Polymorph’, concerning irritable surveyor Promotho (Joyraj Bhattacharya) who arrives from Calcutta to map out a road system only find the locals hostile to this proposed deforestation. Although he enquires about some seemingly odd behavior and business practices, Promotho pays no heed when a villager curtly exclaims, “You’re here to build roads so stick to that” or when the innkeeper recommends he locks his door on the night of a festival. This section unabashedly acknowledges its influences when a peripheral character blurts out “Seijun Suzuki, Kaneto Shindo, Teshigahara.” However, just as it settles into a groove as a spot-on tribute to Japanese New Wave cinema, complete with sound design and still photography that evoke Pitfall (1962) and masks that recall Onibaba (1964), it suddenly takes off in direction that is more akin to the post-modern distancing of Holy Motors (2012) or Climax (2018).

The second and longer story, ‘Maya’, follows impoverished, wandering cook Bibhuti (Soumyajit Majumdar) who takes a job in a remote villa which is owned by a jovial millionaire Nibaran Chakraborty (Jayanta Banjeree) yet looks derelict. When his new boss has to travel to the city, the laidback Bibhuti is left to his own devices and becomes accustomed to a life of relative luxury, only for a series of increasingly bizarre dreams featuring a mysterious woman (Debleena Sen) to prompt him to question whether he has passively entered a form of entrapment.

Aside from the aforementioned Japanese masters, there are references to Giallo nightmares, the psychedelic visions of Alejandro Jodorowsky, minimalist science fiction, and art pop music videos, all of which fold into one another thanks to the the layered design of this visually and aurally complex universe. Much of the film is presented in crisply atmospheric black-and-white by cinematographer Basab Mullick with bursts of ravishing color at key junctures to indicate slippages in reality or momentary heightened awarness of barely detectable co-existence. As an Indian film that has presumably been made with the international festival circuit in mind, Ghost of the Golden Groves is intriguingly self-aware of how its location is likely to be exoticized through such exhibition as the camera lingers on murals or the crumbling structure of the estate. When the film’s measured rhythm intermittently picks up with decedent synth pop filling the soundtrack, Dutta and Roshni Sen note how millennial culture has appropriated such secluded environments for faux-spiritual experiences.

Amid the disorientating strangeness, Promotho’s escalating panic and Bibhuti’s deadpan bemusement make them suitable audience surrogates. Their stories complement one another by riffing on the same elements but doing so at a different pace and building to markedly different outcomes. Both concern travelers who do not pay attention to warnings and are left alone when a key supporting character (innkeeper/employer) abruptly departs yet exhibit contrasting responses to their surroundings. Promotho’s superior attitude and civil servant appearance (slacks, short-sleeved short worn tucked-in, side-parted hairstyle) position him as someone who is resistant of the forest and outright dismissive of its customs whereas the good natured Bibhuti amiably strolls around with his belly hanging out, exploring the forest with genuine curiosity. It’s not that Bibhuti isn’t perturbed by the otherworldly occurrences but the cook ultimately goes with the flow and finds contentment in limbo rather than succumbing to fear of the unknown.

One could take the two parts here as flipsides of the same cautionary tale or as commentaries on different reactions to a particular strand of contemporary cinema. Either way, Ghost of the Golden Groves is a true one-off.

Ghost of the Golden Groves is showing at the London Indian Film Festival 2019 on June 22 and 28.

The Bagri Foundation London Film Festival 2019 celebrates a decade of bringing the best new South Asian films to the UK, with 5 cities, 25 venues and 25 specially curated films. It starts on June 20 in London and continues until July 8 at cinemas across the UK. Watch the festival trailer here.