In a nondescript village in Rajasthan, 10-year-old Tipu lives with his father Dhaanu, little sister Gunni, and widowed aunt. The farming family is poor and heavily in debt. Many young men, including Tipu’s uncle, have committed suicide owing to this extreme pressure.
Dhaanu returns to the village from the city under cover of night but still can’t escape the watchful eyes of the local moneylender Bhoora. Given no other choice, Dhaanu makes a monumental decision: he will have to sell Bhasmasur, the donkey.
It is not an easy decision to make. Tipu takes care of Bhasmasur like he is one of the family. The donkey, too, only listens to him. However, the trio set off from their village to go to the city, by foot, to get a good price for Bhasmasur.
Initially, Tipu tries to free Bhasmasur but comes along on the long, arduous journey, hoping to change his father’s mind and spend as much time with Bhasmasur as he can. He gives his father the silent treatment but over time reveals his inner feelings. He misses his mother, yet wants to spend time with his largely absentee father.
The two travel over rocky and hilly terrain in the heat, breaking their journey now and again to rest. Soon their water gets over, then their food packed for the journey spoils. Through it all, Tipu’s spirit never breaks. He is a sentimental child (he carries around a stick wrapped with his mother’s saris) and loves music (he often breaks into song).
Once they reach the city, certain harsh decisions have to be taken. There are distressing moments when Bhasmasur goes missing and is later thankfully found, but those are short-lived. Dhaanu, his brow forever furrowed, finally gets his money, but maybe the cost is too great.
At 10, Tipu has a lot of growing up to do. In a heartbreaking scene, he says goodbye to his family and friend in Bhasmasur, but that’s not even the end of this tragic tale. Dhaanu has one more agonizing decision to make, one that will change Tipu forever.
Bhasmasur is an accomplished first feature from director Nishil Sheth, who co-wrote the screenplay with Raghav Dutt, and his crew. The film is stunningly shot and edited, and makes wonderful use of Rajasthan’s vistas — from its barren lands to the lively colourful fair at Pushkar.
The film’s leads, Imran Rasheed as Dhaanu and young Mittal Chouhan as Tipu, hold your attention through this somber tale of the plight of rural families. The other main character in the film is, of course, Bhasmasur. The white donkey takes his name from Hindu mythology as a demon who had the power to turn people into ashes by simply placing his palm on their heads.
The link between Tipu and Bhasmasur is strong, but the relationship between father and son is more complicated. Their helplessness at their situation will break your heart. The film, which is inspired by true events, is a familiar tale of love and sacrifice. Try and catch this deeply moving film if you can.
Bhasmasur was screened at the 19th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival on 12 October 2017.