Hawk moths are delicate creatures. Surrounded by so many other moths in the same frame, they occupy their own little space in the world. Yet they arrive, slowly and surely, like raindrops on a giant white screen that will occupy most of our attention in Nocturnes – the new meditative and mesmerizing documentary by filmmakers Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan. The only Indian documentary premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Nocturnes is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. (Also read: Nocturnes directors Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan interview on the only Indian documentary at Sundance 2024)
What are the hawk moths saying?
In the course of the next 82 minutes, Nocturnes invites you to observe and decipher the pattern of these hawk moths, with the help of ecologist Mansi Mungee and her assistant Bicki. These two personalities are the only human resources which more or less provide track of the study of hawk moths, but this is not a film that will all the gaps with endless details about that study.
Deliberately minimalist and unwilling to share its secrets so easily, Nocturnes is a series of gently observed moments. It invites you and then leaves you abandoned in the darkness of the Eastern Himalayan forest, where Mansi and Bicki tirelessly put up the giant white screen during the night, and simply observe. What you see is what you gather. What she is most curious about is the size of these moths, and so they click innumerable pictures day in and day out. Study them in the morning, and also update any little addition to the study in the lab.
As it takes shape, Nocturnes gives clues to a sort of invisible thread that connects its viewers to the subjects. Yet, invariably, the film trusts them to arrive at their own vision within the framework. Most of the time, we are looking at the moths or looking at Mansi and Bicki looking at the moths. This interplay of gaze is combined by the stunning visual aesthetic captured by Satya Rai Nagpaul, where the camera often rests on the forest and its rich biodiversity while the examination of moths continues in the background.
How a pale green caterpillar crosses its way through a leaf becomes a crucial moment in between, and in another moment, both Mansi and Bicki are placed in the corner of the frame – their conversations and concerns seem tiny when compared to the vast flora and fauna of the forest which they inhabit for the day. The more we spend time with them, the more we are also allowed to entire a sort of context within the forest space – where so much exists in harmony to the plain eye.
Nocturnes is intimate and expansive – breathtakingly vivid in its sensory, aural design. It plays with the perception of how one wants to explore what these moths want to say. Is there an answer? Does the research yield towards a denouement? The directors show the endless hours of research and development, where the rigour of Mansi’s scientific work gives way to a certain sense of perspective. Yet, there’s no perspective more rewarding than the one of the viewer, and Nocturnes invites you to that quest. Anirban and Anupama have created a film that stimulates your senses.
Santanu Das is covering the Sundance Film Festival 2024 as part of the accredited press.