Pranay Limbu’s Urmi (उर्मि) opens with the early hours of dawn in Buddha Chok of Dharan. The sky is velvet black, crickets chirp in the background. Every once in a while, a motorcycle or a car rushes by and the screen turns momentarily bright, filled with the rattle of engines.
At the centre of the shot is a lonely house, its first floor bathed in an eerie yellow falling squarely upon figures that look almost alive from a distance. Slowly, the sun creeps in from all directions, signalling the start of another day.
The house gains more colour, more features. A blue signboard at the top reads, ‘Late Poet Bimal Gurung Memorial Library’ in Nepali and English. Purna Gurung, can be seen walking about inside, arranging books. He pauses occasionally, his calloused hands run across the tables and the books, eyes rippling and wandering like pools of water in the monsoon.
Urmi is a story primarily of absence, where every note is sustained and every shot lingered. The protagonist is an ex-British Gurkha coming to terms with his son’s death 28 years ago. But there is no way the grief can be truly expressed, even after all this time. Purna Gurung says so himself early in the film: “I don’t know how to explain.”
Bimal Gurung, the son, was 20 when he died in a bus accident in 1991. Always abroad on duty, Purna never really got to spend time with his son and truly bond. So, he establishes the library in his son’s name, as he was a voracious reader.
Purna also visits his old teachers and friends, flips through the family album, reads Bimal’s passionate and politically charged poems – all in an attempt to understand and build the character that was his son.
Shot in nine days over two years, the film is a strange blend of documentary and drama. Certain events, such as when a real estate broker from Kathmandu dressed garishly in denim struts into the library to try and buy it from Gurung, are the amalgamation of various middlemen who continue to try and coax Gurung into selling the property.
“I am a businessman,” says the smooth-talking broker with a glint of malice slipping through his teeth, “I do not only think of my own benefit, I think of yours too.”
But Purna Gurung is a patient man. The deep lines on his face are testament to his devotion to the memory of his son and family. “I will think about it,” he says, and in the end leaves Tolstoy’s How Much Land Does a Man Need? bookmarked in a story collection for the businessman to read.
Another impressive dramatisation is the haunting voice that reads Bimal’s poems, punctuating the film in what feels like a series of exclamation marks. To be fair, the drama would fall flat without the interviews with Gurung himself. But without the drama, the film’s background and direction perhaps would not have been possible to convey either.
The emotional climax of the film comes when Gurung wells up, saying “When I am with these books, I feel like I am with my son … his soul is in these books.” Purna trembles, and says later: “About Bimal, I have no words.”
It is a risky mix, certainly, of fact and fiction – not in that the parts of the story are untrue, but only so far as they are metaphors – but Urmi is successful because of that risk taken.
The word ‘उर्मि’ means a wave of sorrow and pain – and in the film, the viewer follows a father, who has recently turned 80, in search of his lost son, piecing together the images and memories others have of him. To tell this story entirely through interviews would have missed the point. How else can one show absence, that heavy abstract feeling of nothingness?
Urmi was screened at the 25th Film Southasia in Yalamaya Kendra on 23 April 2022.
Nepali | 85 minutes | 2022
Directed by Pranay Limbu
Cinematography by Deepak Bajracharya
Edited by Chandan Dutta