A nomad attempts to reconnect with to his North Indian home in this meditative debut playing in the ACID sidebar

In Retreat

Source: Cannes ACID

‘In Retreat’

Dir/scr: Maisam Ali. India/France. 2024. 75mins

A nameless middle-aged man (Harish Khanna) returns his Himalayan hometown  of Leh, the capital of Ladakh in North India, after a long absence. As he wanders around trying to reconnect with the place over the course of a single night, an overwhelming inscrutability appears to envelop the feature debut of Indian filmmaker Maisam Ali. Yet, as the viewer gradually finds a way into the shifting, evolving narrative, the film begins to resonate as a tactile exploration of loneliness, alienation, and the human condition.  

A deeper dive into the daily lived experience and social and cultural fabric of Leh

In Retreat comes to Cannes after participating in the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum’s Work-in-Progress lab in 2022. Its world premiere in ACID marks the first time an Indian film has been programmed by the sidebar, and should lead to attention and further festival play in more adventurous events.

Ali’s avant-garde approach is immediately evident in his approach to the setting itself. He side-steps the conventional cinematic impression and imagery of Ladakh. The majestic mountains, larger-thanlife landscape and picturesque beauty of the place make way for a more quotidian evocation of the sights and sounds through Ashok Meena’s deft, observant camera and Niladri Shekhar Roy, Rahul Tiwri and Kriti Kamal Das’s ear-to-the-ground sound design. Be it the crowded alleyways, Buddhist food in Tibetan cafes and prayer in the mosque, this is a deeper dive into the daily lived experience and social and cultural fabric of Leh drawn, most likely, from Ali’s own personal experience of having been brought up in Ladakh. He also brings a stream of consciousness flow to the editing with co-editor Raghvender Vippuganti.

When the film’s nomad protagonist returns, he is late for his brother’s funeral and lingers at the threshold of what was once home. Khanna performance  is remarkable in embodying loneliness and vulnerability with a stoic, weary and downbeat presence, saying more with a look than words. The film asks viewers to ponder questions of home and belonging. Can there ever be a possibility of return when you have consciously left a whole world behind and cut yourself off from your roots? 

The essential peripatetic nature of its protagonist lends an itinerant touch to the film itself. It is structured organically around a series of disparate vignettes that are seemingly disconnected yet linked in invoking the meandering journey of its central figure. The loneliness of one character often intersects with that of others and finds an answering empathy, even if the conversations between these strangers might seem awkward or staccato. 

Ali plays with the idea of time and space, and works with a sense of duality: home, roots and belonging as opposed to estrangement; the physical journey juxtaposed against the psychological. He uses the wisdom of the elders and snatches of poetry to lend a philosophical, metaphorical feel. While the film is about the one who left, it is also about the paradoxes of having decided to stay on, of being stuck where you are, the lack of hope and expectations within homes that might appear to look happy and inviting from outside. Clearly, there can be no perfect state of being. 

To cap it all, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, ‘If I Were Another’, used in the voiceover, suggests a larger sense of exile and places individual traumas against a more universal political backdrop of being lost and stranded in one’s own motherland.

Production companies: Varsha Productions, Barycenter Films

Producers: Saroj Kherotia, Thanikachalam SA

Contact: Thanikachalam SA, barycenterfilmcollective@gmail.com

Cinematography: Ashok Meena

Production design: Siddhesh Kandalgaonkar

Editing: Maisam Ali, Raghvender Vippuganti 

Main cast: Harish Khanna, Zohair Ahmad, Sonam Angmo, Sonam Wangmo, Mohammad Ali Shah