Bitter Chestnut (2020) *** Rotterdam Film Festival 2020

January 25th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Gurvinder Singh | Wri: Gayatri Chatterjee | Drama, 100′

Bitter Chestnut is an intimate, authentic coming-of-age story that sees a teenager torn between a steady traditional life in his village in the Himalayan hills of Himachal Pradesh and the bright lights of modern Delhi. Another local man tried his luck down in the city but soon returned bankrupt.

Kishan is pleasant and hard-working in Gurvinder Singh’s film that successfully incorporates a lowkey drama with documentary style footage of locals going about their everyday life which is very much a communal affair: the women discuss childbirth and weaving methods, while the men are busy building houses and working in the fields – although these activities are not gender exclusive. Kishan seems to come from a more educated family, his grandmother owns the local  Cloudoor Cafe which Kishan runs while also preparing her food. She teaches him English, a language she speaks daily with her close friend in Delhi.

Meanwhile Kishan remembers when the village was burnt down by a fire when he was only six. He is still haunted by the memory, but those who lost their houses in the blaze have never got back to normal. It takes 12 trees to build a wooden house but due to the danger of fire, village houses are now built of concrete, which is not so comfortable or warm. The proud owner of a designer-style beanie and the latest mobile phone, Kishan is also versed in local folklore and knows why the chestnut got its bitter taste. The fruit of the Kaunach tree, these chestnuts were cursed when one fell on the head of a woman who was cleaning her scalp. No washing can get rid the fruit of its bitterness. Likewise the locals believe that no one can change their fate. Later Kishan is seen asking advice from the local soothsayer who tells him to go away.

Singh works with local, non-professional actors, and is maintains his distance from the debate about migration to the cities being an existential threat to traditional village communities. Kishan is placid despite his curiosity about life in the developed world. He is still deeply rooted in his village, and knows that moving to Delhi is not without its risks from the stories of prison and abuse he hears from returning friends. Kishan’s family try to talk him out of his plans to go there. His fate is clearly still in the balance. MT



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