Shivajee Chandrabushan’s Frozen is a lyrical and often dreamlike film. Shot on location in Ladakh and released in black and white, it’s a story told as much through the stunning visuals as through the slightly clunky screenplay. I’ll state upfront I don’t have much of a view on the political background, and I am sure a homegrown audience would have a deeper understanding that would colour their viewing. I found the film satisfying on face value as a story about family, the effects of change, and the challenge to maintain integrity.
Karma (Danny Denzongpa) is an apricot jam maker, a widower living with his family in their ancestral home near Leh. He knows he has to try and keep up with the times, but that is easier said than done. He bought a machine to speed up his jam production but it doesn’t run reliably. He has mounting debts as his business deteriorates, loans cannot be repaid on time, and the interest is crippling. His daughter Lasya (Gauri) is wilful and an attention seeker, while Chomo (Aungchuk) is her little shadow. The siblings spend their days playing with their dog Singhe, running around in the woods, or going to visit their mother’s memorial, high on a neighbouring hillside. Lasya is growing up and Karma knows he should settle her marriage before all his debts are called in, but he resists taking any action, hoping he can keep providing for her. One day the army arrives on his doorstep to set up a camp. Their peaceful valley is suddenly full of trucks and electric lights, threats of violence by ‘the enemy’, and his land is no longer worth anything.
The pace, and price, of change is evident. The crowd at a festival is dotted with camera wielding tourists in Gore-Tex, hideous denim replaces the traditional woollen clothing, and motorbikes replace ponies. The army officers talk about the enemy and how the valley is no longer safe, but Karma only sees the place he grew up. His land is now covered in barbed wire, the silence broken by constant truck traffic. The officers also complain about how all the food in the market is being bought by ‘them’ to cause shortages, a sad situation for the jam maker who cannot sell his wares.
Danny Denzongpa is just wonderful. He doesn’t have much dialogue and manages to convey so much through Karma’s expressions, his pauses before responding, and his stillness. Karma’s Buddhist philosophy is the foundation of his character. He uses every challenge as a means of practising what he believes in, and his integrity is as substantial and present as the mountains. When Karma realises loan shark Dawa is proposing to trade Lasya in return for more money, there is a long beat before he meekly nods. Danny shows his revulsion, anger and resignation all in a flicker of expression, with no sign of any 70s masala filminess or his more recent villainous styling. I’m always happy to see Danny rock up in any film, and I particularly enjoyed this very gently shaded characterisation.
Gauri is pretty and lively, and gives Lasya a case of chronic resting bitch face which suits the character perfectly. She is starting to want more than her life in the remote homestead but it is clear she loves her father and her little brother. The local Romeo, who is actually called Romeo, (Shakeel Khan) takes a fancy to her. While she likes his attention she seems to like the opportunities to explore the world that come along with a boyfriend with a motorbike more than she likes the boy. Lasya is a typical teenager in a not so typical setting. Her energy sometimes manifests as anger, even when she doesn’t really know why. Karma does his best to teach her to guard her mind, to understand how to address her fears.
Little Chomo is the typical baby brother. He follows his big sister and lets her both bully and make a pet of him. Aungchuk doesn’t have to say a lot but he has an expressive face and droll comic timing. He is a loner, only ever hanging out with his sister or silently tagging along after his dad. I wondered about why he seemed to be on the periphery all the time and how he felt about his isolation, and liked the way his story unfolded.
Sita (Anuradha Baral) helps Karma run his house and feed his kids. She is obviously very fond of them and does her best to keep things running. Salim (Sanjay Swaraj) is in the same boat as Karma, with maxed out loans and little prospect of getting back on his feet. Colonel Shyam (Aamir Bashir) and the Rinpoche (Sonam Stobgias Gorky) are different kinds of influences in Karma’s life. The bad side of modernisation is represented by the parasitical loan sharks; sleazy Dawa (Rajendranath Zutshi) and sweary Sharma (Yashpal Sharma).
Karma and Lasya interact with lots of people but I wouldn’t say they were very close with anyone other than Sita. On a rare day out, Lasya explores a fair and it is great fun to see what she sees, and check out the crowds and entertainment, even a glimpse of the cham dancers from Thiksey Gompa. One day I’ll get there myself!
The film sometimes feels a little disjointed as it is more a series of vignettes and images, ranging from realism to more fanciful compositions. That adds to the dreamy nature as scenes shift and the focus moves from character to character. I read somewhere that Shivajee Chandrabhushan is a climber, and he certainly captured the things I love about the mountains. The landscape is both exhilarating and confining, and the vast skies and stark light often have an otherworldly effect. The environmental upheaval mirrors the turmoil in Karma’s life, and the changing seasons are a reminder of how little time he may have to protect his family. The epilogue was a bit tricksy after such a sincere story, and I would have been just as happy for the film to end without the final scene. Having said that, I liked that I was left with questions and possibilities and not just a plot tied up with a bow.
This is a film for a contemplative evening, when you can just immerse yourself in the flow of images and see where it takes you. And a rewarding film for the Danny Denzongpa fans. 4 stars!