Atish Shetty in Mithya
Atish Shetty in Mithya

Mithya review: Sumanth Bhat’s film is a crackling portrayal of grief and muffled angst

The film's central emotion is grief but writer-director Sumanth Bhat shows how it can easily be misdirected as angst. What's even more fascinating is he chooses an 11-year-old boy to make the case.
Mithya (Kannada)(4 / 5)

In Sumanth Bhat’s Mithya, an 11-year-old boy becomes the unconventional subject of a biting character study. Dropping us right into the belly of the aftermath of a devastating event, Bhat creates a vacuum of emotional perplexity in the mind of his protagonist and forces him to come of age, while the world around him stares curiously. 

The camera becomes another bystander in this proceeding and offers a unique view of this journey, as we see the boy quiver and retaliate in silent agony. And yet, the film remains masterfully at a distance just so that our vantage point, our presence, doesn’t interrupt him in what the filmmaker believes to be the natural course of things. Here, even though grief is the central emotion, we see how it manifests itself as misdirected angst. And Bhat makes a great case for it through an ill-equipped candidate, who is too old to forget what’s happened to him and too young to surrender himself to life’s challenges.

Mithun (an outstanding Atish Shetty), or ‘Mithya’, has small but numerous bouts of anger that range from irrationally slapping his mattress to picking up a scuffle with an older, much stronger boy. Bhat realises an exceptionally precarious world where transgression — minor or major, physical or psychological — is always at arm’s reach for his protagonist. Even though the boy is naturally wired to seek happiness, the conceits around him snatch it away every time he finds some trace of it. The rising anguish and tension in him is almost palpable to the viewer but given the unreliability, which is defined primarily by his tender age, we brace ourselves fiercely for the potential outcome. 

The said tension is largely created by the use of the camera, which proves itself to be much more than just a tool for the visual document. Sumanth Bhat and his cinematographer Udit Khurana place their instrument in unusual positions and evoke the idea that it could be another human, unseen and mystical, actually watching over Mithya. It's an eerie feeling, given that the film concerns itself so much about the death of loved ones. Simultaneously, the same effect translates into information as we gather bits and pieces about what really happened here. But the approach never takes the focus away from the boy’s bizarre inward journey. 

We learn that Mithya and his little sister Vandana have lost both their parents owing to a rather gut-wrenching turn of events. The camera, in this scene, stays on him while the details are dispensed to us in the background. We see that he has befriended a boy from his new school in Udupi, and later he quips that this new kid talks a lot. Yet, the gaze persists only on Mithya when the two friends get together for their shenanigans. We gather that he blames his three-year-old sister for the tensions that preceded the tragedy, and in one small scene, he even cruelly punishes her with physical pain. Even here, the camera lingers on his face and his reaction to his newfound position of power. In the larger context, a small infliction of violence of this kind is harmless. But when the feeling underneath continues to simmer, it wouldn’t take long for things to explode or, even worse, implode.

That said, Mithya is never a film about conventional cause and effect. Despite appearances, the film never embraces the routine structure of morality and that is one reason we do not see singularly good or bad people here. People, rather than just characters, make tiny questionable choices like we all do and are even prone to everyday mundanities like greed, mood swings, or sudden bursts of unconditional love. But they all power through life regardless and even though it's not pronounced, it is apparent that the boy learns a little something from everyone around him to wade through the tough times.

Sumanth Bhat, who is also the writer, uses the plot simply to test his protagonist and never to throw us off into believing the film is about something else. Instead, he uses the narrative to highlight the various little moments spent by Mithya, both in chosen solitude and in the company of others, and to slowly expose his mental makeup. It helps that Bhuvanesh Manivannan, the editor, intentionally truncates scenes and lends a vignette-like structure to the film. The result is that the story progresses from one small moment to another, and despite the intensity of the situation, all that we care about is what Mithya will do in this present moment. Midhun Mukundan, too, chooses only specific moments with his music and never tries to intrude; Shreyank Nanjappa’s sound design perfectly complements him in transporting us to the world.

Mithya’s relationship with his uncle, played with great control and awareness by Prakash Thumminad, is easily the most heartrending dynamic explored in the film. As a viewer who innately believes that something wrong is just around the corner, and that there must be a ‘catch’ in the case of the uncle, I was humbled by the sheer amount of grace with which this equation is dealt. Similarly, we see how Mithya forges genuine bonds with every new member of his life now and is forced to behave a certain way with each of them – his aunt, his teachers, his friends, his bullies etc. But the writing is extremely deft and these characters do not become mere accessories, nor do they take the shine away from the boy’s graph. They simply exist in the scheme of things as well-rounded individuals.

Through Mithya, I was reminded of the works of masters like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and Alan Clarke. The British filmmakers have often used socialism and the working class as their backdrops to paint compelling pictures through a supremely understated and matter-of-fact approach. Here too, the stakes are incredibly high and the tragedy too overwhelming to understand. But Mithya brings us extremely close to the situation in its own manner and implores us to dig within our own psyche, asking us how we would react in a situation such as this. 

We do not get to see the photo of Mithya’s parents nor do we see him shed a tear at any point. Everything is incredibly subtle, everything incredibly muffled inside his heart. I wondered where a film such as this could possibly end and the climax that Sumanth Bhat seemed quite adequate in his pursuit. But it is true that a story of this kind could not end so soon, maybe only the film does. Many years later, we might get to see Mithun grown up and still unable to shake his past off. He still might be heaving deep inside and potentially, that might have a bearing on his other relationships – for both better or worse. We might even see him look back at all this one day and treat it as an illusion, as a wild daydream. But for now, we know that he will do okay and that seems enough assurance.

Mithya is a 2023 film which is part of the Asian Cinema Competition at the 15th Bengaluru International Film Festival.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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