Much of Nagesh Kukunoor’s Aashayein is set in a leafy seaside home for the terminally ill. There’s a death every other day, and the possibility of death every moment. Seventeen-year-old Padma (Anaitha Nair), dying of cancer, hated her parents until the disease was detected; now she hates them more. Madhu (Farida Jalal) was a sex worker who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. Govinda (Ashwin Chitale) is a comic-book fanatic and storyteller, also deified as a child soothsayer and mystic. Rahul (John Abraham) joins this group of people staring at death when he is diagnosed with lung cancer. He was a bookie who had a windfall days before he fainted while proposing to his girlfriend Nafisa (Sonal Sehgal).
The story of Aashayein has promise. A motley group waiting to just die? Black humour would be the tool of most great writers. Kukunoor does attempt it, but half-heartedly. Most of this movie is a hodge-podge of Bollywood histrionics, chicken-soup-for-the-soul sentimentality and some schlocky Indiana Jones fantasy. There are glaring implausibilities in characterization. Madhu, for example, isn’t convincing as a former sex worker. Rahul never stops smoking or jogging even in an advanced stage of cancer. To add to the woes, sad, shrill songs are thrown in at every plot point—supposedly for dramatic momentum.
This has got to be one of Kukunoor’s most ambitious films— and also one of his poorest. The film totters right in the first one hour into a tedious, soppy saga about life and death. Abraham has never shown much acting talent before. For him, this was a role of a lifetime. But there’s little that he can muster to lend his character warmth or edge. The star of the film, and indeed of this group of characters, is Padma. She is brazen, dramatic and unapologetic—the character you wish wouldn’t die. Nair played the role of one of the hockey players in Chak De! India. She imbibes the layers of Padma’s character completely and delivers a convincing performance.
The bigger problem with Aashayein is, however, in the portrayal of disease, especially cancer. Everybody who has cancer is on death row; they are either estranged from their families or have chosen not to be with their families, just to await death “peacefully”. The film reiterates the myth that cancer can’t be fought or cured.
The film drags on to around two and a half hours, dashing all hopes of a satisfying end along the way.
It’s a Bihar that exists in popular perception. Hoodlums, sleazy chauvinists, oppressive societal gaze on women—some of the imagined truths about Bihar have a disturbing basis in reality. Sushil Rajpal, director of Antardwand, narrates a story that reiterates the worst stereotypes associated with the state. The film has won a National Award, but was in the can for a long time before it found a distributor in PVR Pictures.
Antardwand is a powerful film, its subject bordering on the bizarre. In pakaruah shaadis, or forced marriages, eligible grooms are kidnapped and married to girls against their wishes. It’s a phenomenon which was rampant in the 1980s, and continues to be so in some pockets of rural Bihar.
But as a film Antardwand does not suffer because of its subject’s provinciality. In the hands of a capable director (a cinematographer who turns director with Antardwand ), the universal shines in the provincial. It is not a preachy film, and certainly not a tedious one—held up largely by some good performances, and a safe, conventional structure.
The story begins in Delhi, where Raghuveer (Raj Singh Chaudhary), a Delhi University student appearing for the civil services examination, discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant. He boards a train home to Bihar to tell his parents that he wants to marry her. During this one-day trip he is kidnapped, and later married to a girl named Janaki (Swati Sen) against his will. The girl’s family is adamant about making this marriage work, but obviously it doesn’t. Interspersed with some harrowing moments of subjugation and prejudice, the story of Antardwand is relentlessly dark.
Who would be this rotten society’s worst victim? Traditional, unyielding parents; a promising young man or the woman who has nothing to lose becasue she has been a puppet since she was born? The end may surprise you.
Chaudhary and Sen have studied their roles and perform well, barring some scenes in which the histrionics seem annoyingly like that of a bad Hindi commercial movie. The melodrama is unnecessary and out of sync with the overall sombre tone of the film. Vinay Pathakas the groom’s father does a superb rendering of the middle-class, middle-aged Bihari man, unable to overcome the pressure of socially acceptable behaviour for the sake of his son’s future.
Antardwand deserves all the laurels it’s received so far—and also your 2 hours at the multiplex.
Aashayein and Antardwand released in theatres on Friday.