Shot in the Punjabi language, Gurvinder Singh’s Venice Orrizonti-selected first feature is both meandering and meditative at the same time, with fine attention to environmental detail.
Dir. Gurvinder Singh
2011 | India | Drama | 112 mins | 2.00:1 | Punjabi
Not rated – likely to be PG
Cast: Samuel John, Mal Singh, Serbjeet Kaur
Plot: A day in the life of a family in a village in Punjab as they deal with social and labor trials and inequities, leading to a night of a lunar eclipse.
Awards: Nom. for Orrizonti Award (Venice)
Source: National Film Development Corporation
Subject Matter: Moderate – Class
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
A new voice in Indian cinema of the 2010s, Gurvinder Singh’s Alms for a Blind Horse is a promising first feature shot in the Punjabi language. It is about daily life in a rural Punjab village as experienced by the lower caste Dalits, but there are also extended scenes in the city.
In a way, this reminds me of the structure and themes of Goutam Ghose’s Paar (1984), though Singh’s work is certainly less harrowing. The title ‘Alms for a Blind Horse’ comes from an age-old tradition where people believed that alms should be given on the night of a lunar eclipse.
The film begins with an old man shouting the phrase in the dead of night as he strolls down one of the misty, dimly-lit alleyways (a scene not unlike something that might come out of a Pedro Costa picture).
Things happen in the film, but there is no one ‘lead’ character whom we follow, though Singh privileges certain characters during different parts of his film—for instance, an old grandfather who acts as a silent sympathiser when one of his neighbours had his home unceremoniously demolished by the authorities; or his nephew who wanders in the city trying to survive on petty cash.
The narrative is loose and meandering, but I don’t think Singh is interested in storytelling as much as environmental detailing. His fine attention to detail is most lucid in his emphasis on incidental sound and movement, such as distant locomotives passing with horns blaring, the few vehicles that traverse the dusty streets of the village, or groups of restless old men strutting through the labyrinth of narrow alleys seeking whatever justice they can find.
Some might find Alms for a Blind Horse a meditative affair, with some influences from the likes of Antonioni. I see it as a mood piece with some commitment to social realism. Singh would go on to make films such as The Fourth Direction (2015) and Bitter Chestnut (2019).