Hidden Depths of Intrigue in Atul Sabharwal’s ‘Berlin’

In the maze of New Delhi’s winter fog, a story unfolds in the claustrophobic yet intense world of espionage—a tale encapsulated in the curiously titled Hindi film, ‘Berlin.’ Not a narrative taking place in the famed German capital but one firmly rooted in the crowds and corners of 1990s New Delhi. Filmmaker Atul Sabharwal transports viewers to a café nicknamed ‘Berlin’, a hub enveloped in haze and enigma, within the city’s diplomatic zone. This backdrop sets the stage for his third feature, an atmospheric spy drama that unfurls during the icy months leading up to Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s historic visit to India in 1993.

In this gripping narrative, Ashok, portrayed by Ishwak Singh—a deaf-mute waiter at the heart of an assassination conspiracy—finds himself ensnared by the mechanisms of power. His incarceration in the monolithic ‘Bureau’ premises pits him against Pushkin, a character brought to life by Aparshakti Khurana, who doubles as a sign language instructor from a nearby school and the interrogating force. The series of interviews are grimly overseen by Jagdish, an intelligence officer exuding a blend of slyness and subtlety, performed by Rahul Bose.

Sabharwal is no stranger to the visual and narrative execution of gripping tales, with previous works including the police drama ‘Class of ‘83’ and the action thriller ‘Aurangzeb’. He also penned ‘Jubilee’, a series celebrating the heyday of Indian cinema. Growing up in Agra, Sabharwal’s creative influences were infused with remnants of a Soviet past. English and Hindi translations of works by Russian literary greats like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were not just widely read but distributed across schools in mobile vans. This was a time when Polish films graced the late-night slots on Doordarshan and Indian popular cinema found an eager audience in the former USSR.

Reflecting on the prominence of the Soviet zeitgeist in his childhood, Sabharwal recalls how Soviet science fiction, gadget manuals, and iconic figures like Nadia Comăneci were commonplace in the media, symbolizing the era’s socialist tenor. This ‘Russo’ atmosphere is subliminally woven into the film’s fabric, with even the small details adding layers of depth to the narrative.

Despite the geopolitical shadow looming over ‘Berlin’, the film’s inception stems from a deeply personal space—Sabharwal’s career reflections when he felt encased by forces larger than life, paralleling his protagonist’s plight. The seed of Ashok’s character was planted in the bustling environment of a Mumbai Costa Coffee, staffed with deaf-mute individuals, blooming into a figure that straddles the line between vulnerability and silent strength.

The movie echoes with the aesthetic of stringent British and American spy films, paying homage to the genre’s titans like Alan J. Pakula and echoing the sartorial echoes of John le Carré adaptations. ‘Berlin’ visualizes these influences through the stark, brutalist architecture of Delhi, where director of photography Shree Namjoshi, and production designers Ashok Lokare and Sandeep Shelar, accentuate the cold concrete and harsh angles ubiquitous in the city’s landscape.

Yet, Berlin is punctuated with an unusual form of silence—a silent film in the midst of sound. Actors Ishwak and Aparshakti delved into months of intensive sign language workshops and engaging with the deaf-mute community to transform their on-screen communication into an organic element of their personas. The film thus becomes a canvas for both verbal absence and non-verbal expression.

Beyond the visuals, the auditory experience stitched by Chennai-based composer K (Krishna Kumar) and sound designer Anthony BJ Ruban is pivotal. Sabharwal, drawing a parallel to the emotive soundscapes in ‘The English Patient’, sought to craft a soundscape for ‘Berlin’ that would embody the essence of memories hushed by silence, a soundscape that is both tense and enthralling without intrusion.

This cinematic piece, ‘Berlin’, is not just a film but a multi-sensory experience that premiered at the Red Lorry Film Festival in Mumbai and is scheduled for exhibition at the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi. It stands as a testament to the power of silent storytelling within the dynamism of Hindi cinema.

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