By Chandana Phadkule
“Our relationship with time will remain an unsolved mystery. Some days it is moving too fast, on some other days too slow but on most days it is passing by like clockwork. And TIME is the most manipulative when spent alone.”
Reading this statement in the synopsis of the film had my attention from the start, and after watching the film I must say that these words were already an apt review in themselves. (UN)SEEN is an experimental short dance film, conceptualized, choreographed and performed by Anjana Ghonasgi. Developed as a part of AuroApaar’s Manifest Dance Film Incubator 2022, the film reflects her journey with mental health. And as a viewer with my own history of mental health, I found the film to be extremely relatable. In other words, I felt seen.
Anjana describes herself as a versatile storyteller and performing artist whose journey in dance began with Bharatnatyam, leading to her inventing her own dance style known as Mudratutting and now currently exploring creation in dance films. Starting from the very beginning of the film, every frame of (UN)SEEN tells a story in itself. Be it the untouched dishes lying in the sink, a hand reaching towards the light, or a breeze caressing the face, the film is filled with metaphors throughout - metaphors of lived experience woven into a narrative of storytelling interspersed with dance.
The core of the film, the concept of (UN)SEEN addresses mental health; a topic barely discussed within the dance world in India. Anjana explains her intention to depict the emptying nothingness felt in depression. She questions the passing of time in loneliness versus the passing of time in solitude. As a viewer, I could relate to the theme deeply. It showed not just the inner turmoil of depression, but also anxiety, and other plaguing aspects of mental health. I especially liked the space and light chosen for this film. The space, a home, is one that seems safe and comfortable, and yet feels lonely and suffocating. Daylight, signifying a time of the day when life is happening around you while you seem stagnant; the sunlight, a reminder that one’s will to do exists within reach if only you can grasp it. The film brings to surface and makes one see the unseen.
A big challenge in making dance films is how to weave the movement into the narrative, and this was seamlessly executed in (UN)SEEN. The movements seem to arise organically and the sound played a big role in this. The film takes input from mundane sounds of everyday life such as water dripping, the stirring of a spoon, or a chair dragging and uses that to set the dance in motion. Ironically enough, filming of the choreographic sections took place in silence, and that goes on to show that the editing was exceptional. As an audience member of the Experimental Dance and Music Festival in LA and Toronto put it, “You can cut for emotion and you can cut for rhythm and both of that was on display here.” The use of layered clock sounds was an obvious yet subtly beautiful way of indicating the pressure of time, of time building up, time slipping away and actually, as Anjana herself puts it - “the manipulative nature of time”.
The dance itself arises from pedestrian movements leading into expressive choreography. Despite elements of classical Indian dance in the movement and sound, I would look at this film as a contemporary dance film. Contemporary essentially means ‘happening in the now’. While you can clearly see the influence of Bharatnatyam, you can just as clearly see the use of Mudratutting,. Be it the mudras, the abhinaya, or the footwork, the film borrows elements of classical dance, and expresses them in a contemporary manner, with a pedestrian interaction with the space and sound. Refusing to classify the choreography into one specific dance style, Anjana adds that, “For me, a style or a movement language will always be - how am I telling this story at this moment? Am I being honest, is my intention coming across? A lot of the times when I don’t question my movement, is when it comes out honestly.” Indeed, regardless of a classification, (UN)SEEN evokes within the viewers a feeling of discomfort, urgency, and yet relief and validation.
(UN)SEEN questions what a dance film looks like in India. It deviates from the expectation that dance is the main subject of the film, while still categorizing it as a dance film. When one hears about a dance film, the expectation is more about aesthetics, synchronization, ‘steps’, and dance being the main focus as opposed to the concept being the main focus. (UN)SEEN tackles this expectation, and is an important contribution to the contemporary dance films in India. It takes dance off of the stage, and puts it into a private space, and invites you into this private space to witness an experience that is happening.
To conclude this review, I would like to quote Anjana’s own interpretation of her film. She says,
“We are taught to chase happiness as if it's a permanent thing, instead of that, what if we try to find moments of relief for ourselves in a day? As opposed to chasing one thing that we think will make us happy, if we choose to focus on that little momentary relief, I feel it adds to the quality of life. All the noise is always there, but despite that, tune yourself to find the sound of the flute, so that you can align yourself and go ahead.”