Quiet charms of the not-quite narrative
What is this life, if full of care/we have no time to stand and stare,” a little girl lisps in a scene in Milind Dhaimade’s charming, low-key Tu Hai Mera Sunday. The W.H. Davies lines are part of a school assignment, but they have a wider relevance in this film about a group of friends who treasure their Sunday football games.
Cross-cutting between many stories, Tu Hai Mera Sunday examines the importance of being a slacker once in a while. The striking image we see in the first frame—a landscape of dusty old bikes piled up in a dump—could be a stand-in for the characters’ lives, which badly need to be uncluttered: this could mean taking a break from the cut-throat corporate world to prevent yourself from having a status-anxiety-induced breakdown in public, or just finding a quiet space in a mad metropolis (“Mumbai mein koi na koi jagah toh hogi na, jahaan mil ke kuch na kare. There must be somewhere in Bombay where we can hang around doing nothing”). Even if that space is on the roof of a skyscraper, where Kavya (Shahana Goswami) goes to feel like the city, its crowds and noise are faraway things (one might think of her as a distant cousin of the Rajkummar Rao character in Trapped, finding both a prison and a form of release many storeys above ground level).
As if to give its stressed characters a breather, Dhaimade’s film is in no hurry to move its plot forward. It is mainly interested in watching a bunch of people dealing (or not dealing) with their problems. Or just having conversations that may not be about anything specific. But even at its most laid-back, this isn’t what you’d call a non-narrative or anti-narrative film: those terms are best reserved for experimental or avant-garde works by directors like Terence Mallick or Mani Kaul. “Not very interested in narrative” may be a better descriptor, and there are many types of films in that subcategory too.
For instance, some stories get their tone from a passive protagonist—a person who is frozen in a state of inaction, because of circumstance or a character quirk, or both. The books of Kazuo Ishiguro, who just won the Nobel Prize, are full of such people, and the films adapted from them—notably The Remains Of The Day (1993), about an emotionally repressed butler—suggest turbulence buried under a placid, seemingly uneventful surface. Another of my favourite films in this vein, Saeed Mirza’s 1978 debut Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan, is about a rich young man who wants to empathize with the unprivileged, but has no idea how to step out of the bubble he was born in; here is a truly inert “hero”, even though Dilip Dhawan, who played the part, could be as dashing as any of our mainstream leading men of the time.
Then there are works that refuse to provide a dramatic resolution or pay-off, even when a definite narrative arc is involved. I was thinking of this while watching the new Netflix show Mindhunter, about an FBI unit’s efforts in the 1970s to understand the psychological make-up of serial killers. Part of the point of this series—co-produced by David Fincher, who also directed four episodes—is that there may not be any clear patterns or explanations when it comes to the sociopathic mind. Accordingly, even as it follows the broad format of a police procedural, Mindhunter is a work of ellipses and quiet fade-outs rather than full stops or exclamation marks—and this is made most obvious in its use of brief, ambiguous interludes about an anonymous man doing mundane things in Kansas (any true-crime aficionado will realize that this character is Dennis Rader, the notorious “BTK” killer who operated between the 1970s and the early 1990s, but he is never clearly identified and has no connection with the main narrative). This makes the show similar in effect to one of Fincher’s best feature films, Zodiac, which played out as an existential, no-solutions-here narrative even though its premise—detectives and journalists on a killer’s trail—was a dramatic one.
In recent Hindi cinema, examples of the “soak in the mood” film include Gurgaon—which is about a dysfunctional family becoming involved with crime, but has the texture of a story set underwater, where time moves at its own pace—and Mukti Bhawan, about an old man and his son making an appointment with Death in Varanasi, and then finding they will have to wait.
Like the above works, Tu Hai Mera Sunday prioritizes whimsy over exposition for most of its running time—but it becomes markedly more conventional, even conservative towards the end. In the last scene—set on that same skyscraper rooftop—Kavya and Arjun (Barun Sobti) express romantic feelings for each other, and then start talking about marriage, as if it were the inevitable (or the only possible) next step. It felt off-key to me that in a film about the importance of taking it easy and watching life go by, two urbane young people who have only known each other a few weeks, and haven’t even kissed yet, would so abruptly speak the language of proposals and engagement rings. But perhaps this is a reminder that cinema and life both naturally gravitate towards some sort of narrative; that it’s risky to be too unstructured or disorganized, and useful to have safety nets when you’re 20 storeys high.
Above The Line is a column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.
Jai Arjun Singh tweets @jaiarjun
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