Goa is mostly known around the world for its beaches, colonial architecture and its past as a heaven for hippies. With his first feature, Indian filmmaker Miransha Naik has gone beyond these clichés to reveal the much harsher social undercurrents tearing at India’s smallest but richest state. Set around exploited migrant workers and their abusive paymaster-cum-slumlord, Juze is a poised, contemplative and topical debut, with a story offering mostly heartbreak but also a faint glimpse of hope.

An India-France-Netherlands co-production born out of the Goa Film Bazaar, Juze, which has already been picked up for international sales by Films Boutique, should travel well on the festival circuit following its world premiere last week in Hong Kong. The film could very well serve as a calling card for Naik and his fellow budding Goan professionals. Apart from its European producers and a couple of technical staffers from France, Juze is a local production with Goan actors and crew and completed with the help of villagers, an achievement of sorts given the stark storyline at hand.

Interestingly, the film’s title doesn’t allude to its protagonist. At the center of the 1990s-set story is Santosh (Rushikesh Naik, no relation to the director), an impoverished teenager whose academic brilliance is constantly undermined by his need to cut classes to earn a low-paid living. While residing in a shabby shack among migrant workers from other regions in India, Santosh doesn’t act like a meek victim, with his circumstances, both material and personal, in the form of his very unsympathetic grandmother (Prashanti Talpankar), instilling a cynical streak within his young mind.

Juze (Sudesh Bhise) is actually the film’s antagonist, the thuggish landlord who owns the slum in which Santosh lives. And the man basically controls the lives of everyone there, in addition to renting those horrendous hovels out to the people, Juze also pays them for jobs in the fields. Santosh’s spiral into slave-like suffering perhaps epitomizes the predicaments of this untouchable underclass: In addition to working for Juze, the boy is forced to mentor his slow-learning son, that is, to do all his homework for him, and provide sexual services to the thug’s wife (Gauri Kamat).

Helmer Naik refrains from illustrating all these developments in melodramatic hyperbole, using only subtle camerawork, most memorably, a series of tracking shots, to reveal how Santosh sees his “labors” as a mundane fact of life. The same goes for his potentially tragic relationship with classmate Maya (Barkha Naik, no relation to the director and her co-star), whose admiration for Santosh dissipates as she gradually witnesses the boy’s traumas up close.

Given all these setbacks, Santosh’s implosion is hardly a surprise, a conventional catharsis for him and the viewer. To his credit, Miransha Naik keeps a tight rein on his use of visual language and dramatic devices, and teases nuanced performances from his cast. The young stars Rushikesh Naik and Barkha Naik are effective in conveying the mental states of flawed individuals with their own difficult rites of passages.

With Juze, Miransha Naik raises a lot of uncomfortable questions without offering easy answers or convenient closure; the film’s dangling end could be interpreted as the beginning of either a better or ominous future. This tactful finale is representative of what is in general a taut and technically accomplished debut that Naik produced with a capable, close-knit crew, a film which foretells bigger things ahead for the filmmaker and his colleagues in Goa.

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