Kalkokkho is the debut feature directed by Rajdeep Paul and Sarmistha Maiti, both alumni of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute. Award winner for best Bengali feature at this year’s National Awards, Kalkokkho or House of Time is one of the most challenging films I have reviewed in the past four decades. Because it is not just a niche film, it is a niche-niche film, and needs repeat viewing to even begin to understand what the directors wish to say.

“House of Time” is the English translation, which does not however quite do justice to the idea and conception that produced the film. The narrative deals with the extreme impact of the covid pandemic on the lives of three women and a doctor, who are trapped in a strange time-space prison, so powerful a trap that the three females – an elderly woman, her daughter, and her young granddaughter – and the doctor they hold captive find it almost impossible to exit from.

The narrative, whatever little I could capture of it, is set when the pandemic was at its extreme peak with everyone running scared for their lives. It is not an abstract film. It does have a narrative which is very strange and confusing at the same time. But it also points to how it began to work negatively and destructively on the mindsets of these three females of different ages whose lives are caught constantly in a time warp, throwing them into a constant state of fear of death, which not only makes them repeat boring and intriguing chores around the clock but also turns them into abductors, torturers and abusers of the very doctor who might guarantee their own safety from the pandemic.

An educated doctor out on his morning walk is suddenly stopped by a young woman who requests him to accompany her to their home to treat an ailing member of her family. The doctor refuses. Suddenly he wakes up in a strange room and is captured by a strange fear when he finds his hands and feet tied to the bed he is lying on. From a proper form of dress, he is now wearing a striped sleeping suit which reminds us of the average prisoner’s uniform. He is given the same food to eat every single day and all his entreaties to the two older ladies fall on deaf ears.

The wall clock shows 9.00 but whether it is morning or night we have no idea, as the lives of these four seem to be trapped within that fixed hour. The actions of the three females are so repetitive every single day that we not only lose track of time, as does the captive doctor, but also get extremely bored as it is difficult to discover why this is happening. The routine remains the same every single day. The doctor wakes up to find the seniormost Mamoni seated on an easy chair knitting something and casting a scary look at him. The younger Mamoni arrives and ties him up before and after meals. The little Mamoni does some drawings in a book and keeps narrating the very same story that appears to have a symbolic relationship with the narrative of the film.

The outside world is represented in two ways – one, a small boy who flies a kite that can be seen from the window and who appears to be friends with the little Mamoni. Mamoni keeps asking him why he has not gone to school and he tells her that his school is closed. He adds that he is not taking precautions against the pandemic as it only happens to the rich and not to the poor. In the evenings, the three ladies repair to a room upstairs to chant prayers together and offer incense sticks and lamps to three Goddesses on a raised altar. The doctor is the lone observer who feels something is quite wrong with these three females but cannot solve the riddle.

The second way is a video conversation that happens between the young woman and a young man through her cell phone. The young man can be seen working in a morgue with dead bodies, presumably working with the dead bodies of pandemic victims. He is a migrant but he cannot come back. Slowly, the conversations stop and one guesses that he too, may have fallen victim to the pandemic.

Suddenly once, the young Mamoni forces herself on the doctor and has sex with him, but he is scared by this behaviour. The only breaks to this boring time-space cycle are when the oldest Mamoni has breathing trouble but no one listens to the doctor’s pleas to take her to a hospital. Then, when she recovers, it is the young girl’s turn to fall sick. The doctor tries his best within his limited resources drawn from a medical box the three women have kept in their strange home. Both of them recover only to get back to their rather scary routine. Till, one fine morning, the doctor mysteriously finds himself in open space, away from that terrible prison, walking away. A young woman approaches him with the same request that was earlier made by the other woman. The doctor refuses to begin with, but then beckons to her and walks towards her to disappear through a path between the trees. The film closes on this uncertain note of despair, disillusionment and depression.

This strange film confuses more than it clarifies or explains, because it only shows the same cycle again and again and again, when the doctor finally tells them that breath - which causes Covid - is not just poisonous that brings death but also brings Life. Does he say this to appease their disturbed souls? Or does he say it to appease himself? Or, are the directors trying to get a message across to the audience? One has no certain knowledge and that is what the film itself aims at.

Does Time control our lives which at a point of time, we cannot manipulate to our satisfaction? Or, is Time a slave to human control and manipulation? These are the two main questions that spell out the philosophy. The directors have taken courage in their hands to actually bore and scare the audience into a state of mind that remains as confused in the end as it was when the narrative opened. The cinematography is as dark and as depressing as the film itself. So is the repetitive editing where the scenes are repeated again and again between nine and nine o’clock. This brings across a feeling of suffocation right through the film.

It is a tangle feeling that spreads right across the film. The art direction reflects the terrible state of the flat in which the three females live a boring, scary and strange life. The acting credits go mainly to the young woman, who exudes an air of danger and fear with her long hair, her large eyes, the long hair left loose and hanging, sometimes very scary, sometimes mysterious, even dangerous. These three actors mostly look directly into the movie camera, creating a diegetic relationship between the characters and the audience.

The question that the film shakes us into asking ourselves is – is this time-space trap limited to the pandemic situation alone? Or, is it present at normal times also, but we do not notice it because Life keeps us busy with the struggle of living and loving and dying? And in the midst of this struggle, we are never made aware that we are all slaves to Time and it is not the other way round. Time cannot be boxed within hours, minutes, days and months though humans have tried to box it according to their own convenience. Kalkokkho is a film that can be taken as a warning for all of us.