Festival News
1 December 2023 | Article
Mithya review: Athish Shetty shines as a trapped soul in an emotional tug of war

Aditya Shrikrishna
1 Dec 2023 


In Sumanth Bhat’s Kannada film Mithya, we are always behind eleven-year-old Mithun aka Mithya (Athish S Shetty). We see what he sees in these moments. Bhat, with his cinematographer Udit Khurana, films Mithya from the back of his head almost all the time. In the very first scene, Mithya is standing perilously close to the door of a zipping train, and we are behind him as he remains still and the background whizzes away.

The composition follows a similar pattern — when he arrives at his new home in an auto, when he is climbing the hill to the lighthouse with his uncle or when he is sitting beside him, watching the waves. There is the face we cannot make sense of and an uncertain future on the horizon. We are behind him throughout this journey of grief, anger, disillusionment and silent inquiry. His face speaks all of it but Bhat places us in the liminal space that is occupied by him with all the questions jostling for space in his mind.

Produced by Rakshit Shetty and written and directed by Bhat, Mithya had its world premiere at the recent Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023 as part of the South Asia Competition. It is about the eponymous child who is brought to Udupi from his home in Mumbai by his maternal aunt and uncle after the death of his parents. His father has passed away and his mother has died by suicide. The matter, however, is more complicated; he has a little sister he didn’t know about. He learns new information about her that adds to his burning questions.


Mithya against the world

This sets the ground for extreme grief, saddled by melodrama, but Bhat’s staging is more observational and non-judgmental. The camera stays in doorways or in the dividing spaces of a home too small for a family of three that is now a family of five. It is sometimes far away from Mithya, a long shot through a crevice as he tries to make new friends in a new school.


While the whole family is welcoming and sympathetic towards Mithya and his sister, the father cozies up to him more than his mother’s sister. Mithya turns out to be the gift, the son he always wanted. Amidst the badgering of different forms of affections, sympathy and endearments, the question of custody comes into play as his father’s family shows up with new allegations.

A trapped soul is hard to navigate and Bhat’s exploration of this is complicated by one that is caught in a tug of war. The film comes up with inventive ways to deal with it —there is the question of language. Mithya, more comfortable in Marathi, finds himself in a different part of the country and goes to a Kannada-medium school. A change of place from the bustling Mumbai to the comatose Udupi brings its own culture shock.

Mithya is a film that’s as much about displacement as it is about estrangement. At one point, Bhat cuts from a raging fire to the blues of water. From extended family that brings with it new mysteries about his own parents to a school where very few are curious about him. In the unbridled battle of custody that ensues, hate takes root in the darkest corners of Mithya’s soul. It begins to fester and gradually assumes a sinister form. This is aided by Bhat’s own lethargic pace, the images of a lone Mithya in a town too sparse and forever overcast and gloomy. The images keep reinforcing that it is not a story of the mother’s family against the father’s but Mithya against the world.


A young boy’s innermost self

The question of lineage is another dangling conversation in Mithya. At one point, the subtext of the custody battle comes out in the open from his father’s relatives — Mithya is the heir to the family and, therefore, key to their bloodline. And for his uncle Surya, he is the son he never had. The film is ostensibly about Mithya but it’s also about the follies of grown-ups and the consequences that befall the children. He offers his daughter’s cycle to him, wishes to send him to the same school as her and bonds with him in ways he never does with the two girls in the house.

Bhat and Athish S Shetty’s strengths lie in rationing Mithya’s spoken words. Even the score is made of gentle keys when the frame is populated only by Mithya and his innermost self. He speaks very little and does a whole lot with his hands, his body and posture. He remains quiet, with his gaze often tinged with longing, occasionally underscored by flashes of rage.

He pedals the cycle with purpose, laughs while watching porn on the mobile phone but also beats, and turns a fun game into violent assault. The Mithya who kicks a volleyball away in anger is different from the one who gets into a fight later in the film. There is an economy of expression in Bhat’s filmmaking, the cloud of dust in Mithya’s head diffuses with time — why is a young boy not allowed to process one kind of emotion before he is thrust into several others?