In Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern-most state of India, the rural community of the Sherdukpen people believe that the spirits of the dead – or the almost-dead – can appear among the living and sometimes communicate with them. No one really knows their true purpose or intent. In many cases, no one dares find out. Yet, their looming influence is inevitable to anyone who ventures in those regions. This is the subject of Mishing (The Apparition), the latest project from independent filmmaker and scholar, Bobby Sarma Baruah. In Mishing, Baruah explores the daily lives and spiritual beliefs of the Sherdukpen people through the eyes of an outsider, as he joins their community bearing a dark and shameful secret.
Mishing centers on Radha Binode Singh (Rajib Kro), a Manipuri army-deserter-turned-personal-driver who, after gaining the trust and respect of his employer, vanishes unexpectedly, taking with him one of his boss’ most prized possessions. He reappears out of the blue nearly 30 years later to explain to Abu (Tsering Dorjee Khrimey), his former boss’ son, the reason for his disappearance. As Abu embarks on a business trip that will take the whole day, Singh comes along and begins to recount the events that led to his predicament.
Thus, Mishing is a frame story, presenting two narratives widely separated in time, with the past taking precedence, as well as most of the screen time. Along the way, Singh narrates to Abu what happened 30 years ago, from the moment of his recruitment as a driver by Abu’s father, to his hasty escape caused by several brushes with the supernatural spirits of the region, the Mishing (wondering spirits of those near-death). Singh enjoyed his time in Abu’s village and even fell in love with a young widow named Maya (Mala Goswami). He deeply regrets his departure. As Singh’s narrative continues, the film occasionally checks back to the present for comments and contextualization, each bringing the mystery of Singh’s disappearance closer to a resolution. When Singh finishes his story, Abu seems satisfied with it. But his journey is not yet over. The last few minutes of the film have a final revelation in store for him.
With a running time of only 75 minutes, Mishing takes a clear and concise approach to its plot, with the supernatural mystery always in focus. Singh is at the center of everything. Each scene hints masterfully to the next and keeps the viewer guessing, not by withholding the “what” of the plot, but the “how.” On occasion, the camera lingers past the characters, showcasing herds of trundling cattle, or the seemingly endless mountain ranges in the background, always enshrouded in a dense fog. Far from a pastoral indulgence, the film’s ever-present landscape enhances the sense of the supernatural, adding to the dread and eeriness of Singh’s experience. Baruah’s great eye for panoramic shot composition goes a long way in establishing a pensive and melancholic mood for a film that depends so much on it. It is really the mood that sells the supernatural, more so than the character reactions, or the occasional horror-film sound cues.
A scene or two in the film will, no doubt, test the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief, and the plot, though concise, may falter at times under too close a scrutiny. For instance, why does Mahajan keep Singh under his employment after that shocking confession of a crime? Or how exactly does final apparition that Singh sees relate to the titular Mishing spirits that appear earlier? A few more minutes in the film could have been dedicated to the fleshing out these connections. Nevertheless, Singh’s tale remains earnest. Just like the folktales which make up the film’s source material and inspiration, the human aspect overshadows plot minutiae. Through a performance that leaves nothing to be desired, the demonstration of Singh’s guilt and regret, and later his attempt at redemption, hold the film together and keep the viewer interested in the mystery.
Unfamiliarity with a culture often makes the western viewer too timid to approach films like Mishing. It shouldn’t. The beauty of folklore is that it thrives in the contradiction between the topical and the universal. The human origin inevitably stands above the cultural differences and lays bare what is most fundamentally common in everyone. Mishing features strong and relatable characters within a fascinating culture, and for that reason it is a film that stays with you long after it’s over.