Rajat Kapoor’s latest film Ankhon Dekhi takes him out of the plush interiors of beautifully appointed apartments in suburban Mumbai to the working-class confines of old Delhi. The joint family led by Bauji (Sanjay Mishra), which has crammed itself into a terrace flat in the Walled City, is gently coming apart at the seams although nobody knows it just yet. His daughter (Maya Sarao) is in love, his younger brother (Kapoor) is desperate to move into his own house, his wife (Seema Pahwa) is fed up with the daily grind. Meanwhile, Bauji tries to escape his Mitty-ordinary existence by chucking up his travel agency job and embarking on a quest to understand the meaning of life. Reasoning that lived experience cannot compensate for textbook knowledge, he confounds and eventually alienates his family members, while also gathering a gaggle of followers who hang on to his every banality.
It’s the kind of superbly performed and neatly orchestrated picaresque entertainment that one has come to expect from Kapoor. Bauji’s intellectual quest is as Quixotic as they come, but is never as profound as it suggests (the metaphor of flight opens the film, so it’s not like you haven’t been warned). After a predictable turn of events, Kapoor’s screenplay suddenly and unexpectedly soars with the introduction of a minor character who simply can’t stop talking. Watched on with approval by Bauji and bewilderment by everybody else, the sequence hints at the mildly surreal nature of what is to follow. Cinematographer Rafey Mahmood’s frames get more crowded, with beautiful use of the confined spaces and cluster of Bauji’s home and neighbourhood (the production design is by Meenal Agarwal), while the old man’s unstructured ramblings finally makes some sense.
Some of the blame for the narrative’s unfinished feel has to do with Bauji’s character, whose internal journey is externalised far too much. The presence of Mishra, who has played kooky roles in several films and on television, is being described as a casting coup, but Mishra doesn’t have the interiority needed to pull off the role. He looks the part but doesn’t inhabit it. His Bauji is as frippery as other quasi-quirky characters who have floated through Kapoor’s cinema—they are funny and fuzzy but are too lightly sketched to leave a lasting impression. Still, as city films and portraits of ordinary people taking a step towards an extraordinary light go, Aankhon Dekhi is an enjoyable confection, delivered by an ensemble cast, especially Sarao as Bauji’s daughter and the ever-dependable Brijendra Kala as his partner in crime, that brings immense energy and vitality to the show.