For years Punjab has been a muse to the Indian mainstream cinema. Being a Punjabi has always been very fashionable in Bollywood, be it the accent or the frequent words that jump between the Hindi sentences, the songs, dances, clothing, bhangra, the brawny munda or the charming kudi, weddings or the evergreen mustard fields, the most common surnames used in these films also invariably come from Punjab, be it the Mehras, Chopras or Malhotras. Unfortunately only a bunch of filmmakers have cared to look beyond the rich class of Malhotras and Chopras in Punjab.
Alms for a Blind Horse directed by Gurvinder Singh at its core is a Punjabi film about the indigenous issues, but at the same time the themes are pretty much universal. It is a story of the oppressed, but the suffering of the persecuted people is portrayed with subtlety, and rather than in an incident, the subjugation is shown in their daily routines. A couple of incidents do take place but never directly related to the protagonists, however these incidents strongly provoke the notion of an impending doom.
The Day is hard to kill and the night shall be the darkest for it is the night of a lunar eclipse. A man walks down the alleys of a hamlet seeking alms for a blind horse (figurative), a tradition to be carried out during eclipse. The previous night, a neighborhood house which stood on a disputed land had been razed by the landlord. When the old members of council come together to console the homeless, the police threatens them and arrests the man of the razed house. One of the phenomenal scenes in film is where the herd of village elders walk through the alleys to the sound of a hand operated drill machine (which only reveals itself after a few shots), we see the reactions of the onlookers as the movement of the herd obscure the screen. They are off to meet the village head, it looks like a revolution is about to take place but soon dies an untimely death. The old men are too weak to fight the landlords and the village head with his gun-wielding henchmen is rather hostile than being helpful. Mal Singh although being an integral part of this congregation ends up being a mute witness like many others, perhaps awaiting his own turn. The rest of the day brings about the heaviness of his existence, his wife bickers about the her deprived wages and the few stalks of mustard she had to beg for, his younger son has been beaten by some landlord and his daughter has to prematurely take up the responsibility of holding on to the fort. His elder son Melu is trying to make a living in the nearby town of Bathinda by pulling rickshaw, but his day is spend in the company of his contemporaries whilst tending to his injury as the rickshaw pullers have gone on a strike that possibly also turned violent at some point causing him the injury. His companions are his fellow rickshaw pullers who mostly speak for him over a bottle of hooch, about his angst and his petty existence. Late into the evening, gunshots are heard in the neighborhood but like most of the villagers, we remain unaware to what could've happened. At around midnight, the father leaves for town to meet his son and the son comes to village and two never meet.
In its run-time of approximately two hours, the film focuses on the existence of these simple folks, it provides us with a window to look at their entire day as a microcosm of their lives. And we can’t really say if this day is their worst or the best. It is perhaps just a day that coincides with a lunar eclipse.
The film does utilize a background score but it is so minimal that it is hardly noticeable. The film speaks but rarely through the spoken word, it is either through silence or through natural sounds, especially the sound of the train. Both the father and son live near a railway track, possibly this track connects both the places too but this connection is futile, none of them could really help the other. Gurvinder Singh's visual sense is impeccable, his narrative is deeply embedded in his cinematography. The camera, whenever it moves, it moves languidly, as though immersed in a thought. It explores the landscape of the faces and rarely establishes spaces through master shots. There is also a certain objectivity to the camera that doesn't allow us to sympathize with the character, rather makes us these uncomfortably ruthless viewers putting us on a spot.
Like the fog that covered the morning like a blanket, any vision into the future is full of obscurity. It could be a bright morning the next day or perhaps the fog would only get thicker. But we needn't think about the morning for the night has to go through an eclipse.