How much can you rebuild your life after years of drug and alcohol abuse? Taala Te Kunjee (Lock and Key), a new feature-length documentary by Shilpi Gulati, delves into this complex subject with a fresh perspective, through a highly immersive and intimate lens.
The film opens as Jasbir Singh, 57, goes about his morning ritual — yoga, watering plants — with a spring in his step. “I feel like I have drunk a whole bottle… Doesn’t it seem like I am drunk?” he grins from ear to ear.
Singh is being facetious, given his history as someone who spent 13 years constantly high on drugs and alcohol, often stumbling out of his home in the middle of the night in search of a drink. Today, he is a Baba Ramdev bhakt who spends his time helping others recover from similar addictions. Over the course of the 82-minute Lock and Key (which won the Jury Special Mention at Film Southasia 2017 in Kathmandu), we meet four other recovering addicts. What binds them is ‘The Hermitage De-addiction Home’ in Amritsar, where they now serve as counsellors.
The bumpy journey, from addiction to sanity, is tinged with humour, bittersweet moments, relief, and regret. There is sadness, but also hope.
There was a time when Nitin Gupta’s liver was barely functioning. Today, the intensely determined 40-something has put 20 years of addiction behind him to counsel patients and their families along with Namrata, his wife. More than a decade ago, the strapping Gurpratap Singh or GPS, as he is fondly called, now 31, took his first dose of smack at a local cricket ground. We then see him playing cricket on the lush lawns of The Hermitage.
It feels like a different life. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Amandeep Pannu, 35, who’s clean and wise after kicking opium, unlocks the mystery behind the title of the film at a counselling session at the centre.
When Gulati was halfway through the shoot, Udta Punjab hit the theatres. But Lock and Key speaks a different language. It spends only a few moments decoding the psychology of Punjab and the connection between large-scale violence and substance abuse.
“The film was not going to be a macro analysis of the drug problem in Punjab but about the intimate experience of recovery, about relationships and the everyday labour that goes into it,” says Gulati.
The documentary also challenges common perceptions and stereotypes around addicts, acknowledging that while families go through great trauma, the addict suffers and struggles as well.
“I began to humanise the addict for myself, and in turn, tried to do so for my audience,” says Gulati.
The women in the documentary are almost as crucial to the narrative as their recovering husbands. Satpal Kaur, who battled serious financial strain, her own illness, and deep emotional trauma while coping with her husband’s alcoholism, talks about what she went through when her husband would lie in a corner of a room, covered in his blood, urine and vomit.
“One day, when he was vomiting blood, my daughter asked me what I wanted to do. I said, what can I do now, I am fed up, if he dies, let him die. My second thought was, where would I go with three daughters? Girls are independent nowadays, but it was not the same in our time…” she says, while peeling potatoes and watching over her grandchildren.
The nuanced and almost poetic documentary joins the dots and takes you close to the heart of its subjects. As Satbir Kaur and Namrata Gupta flip through their wedding albums, reliving their days as young brides, the charming GPS, prepares for his own wedding. We catch a glimpse of the bride and groom in a gurdwara, a picture of health and happiness in matching bright pink oufits. His worst is hopefully behind them.
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