DEATH BECOMES HIM
A dying man finds hope in a drama that works winningly until it gets sidetracked into the supernatural.
AUG 29, 2010 – WHY ISN’T NAGESH KUKUNOOR MORE THAN JUST a hazy blip on the mainstream radar? He makes inexpensive films, which keeps the moneymen happy. For the most part, he works with actors as opposed to stars, and under his guidance, as in Aashayein, even a star like John Abraham is inspired to impart at least a semblance of actorly grace. And he makes films quickly – so unlike filmmakers who take years to come out with a film and then find themselves having to surmount mountainous expectations, fed by pent-up anticipation, we don’t go into a Kukunoor movie expecting the world. At least in my case, I expect little more from him than brass-tacks competence – but because his stories are so different, and because he stages them with such calm assurance, I come away reasonably satisfied. And even when he well-and-truly bombs out, as with Bombay to Bangkok, you retain at least a clutch of happy memories, usually harking back to the crowd-pleasing characters this director is so good at crafting.
Aashayein has plenty of solid laughs, a couple of terrific romantic moments (a marriage proposal with merely two lines of dialogue is a low-key charmer), a handful of rousing (and, yes, crowd-pleasing) eccentrics, truckloads of snappy dialogue, and a story that’s more than a little universal. (The protagonist, Rahul, discovers he’s dying. He joins a hospice and finds comfort in others waiting to draw their last breath. It’s no accident that Rahul, at one point, is caught watching Anand. It’s that laughter-amidst-tears scenario that Kukunoor is attempting to milk for the multiplex market.) After a while, the film does settle into a woozily good-natured zone with little semblance of the narrative moving forward, but when the characters are so likeable and so memorable, you sometimes stop caring about where they are going – you just settle down to enjoy what they are doing. So tell me again, why isn’t Nagesh Kukunoor a more valued commodity?
I reckon my fondness for Kukunoor’s films has to do with my fondness for the films of his inspiration – Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Along with Anand, you sense a Mili hangover in Aashayein, especially in Padma (the spunky Anaitha Nair), the wheelchair-bound drama queen who befriends Rahul at the hospice. Like Jaya Bhaduri’s Mili, she’s a ray of sunshine dispelling the gloom of impending death – but with a twist. Get too close and you may get burnt. This is how Kukunoor builds on Mukherjee. He borrows the basic sensibility, and he layers it with his own modernity. Padma, for instance, is months shy of 18, a minor, and yet she wants to experience love, emotionally and physically, with the 35-year-old Rahul. This is the very definition of walking on a minefield, and Kukunoor handles it with heart and humour and just the faintest touch of melodramatic sentiment.
Death is a constant presence in the hospice, and yet, in the middle-of-the-road Mukherjee tradition, it’s life that’s affirmed, it’s living that’s acknowledged. In one of the most poignant passages of Aashayein, Rahul’s fiancée Nafisa (Sonal Sehgal) shuts him up when he begins to feel a little too sorry for himself. She says the problem with dying people is that they think no one else suffers as much, but what about the living, who will have to endure the hell of parting long after the death of the loved one? Kukunoor has never been much of a music montage maker, but at least in the Chala aaya pyaar sequence, he gets it completely right, when he weaves in an act of mercy killing right between the lines Kabhi zindagi ko savare sajaye and Kabhi maut ko bhi gale se lagaaye. It’s refreshing to see a director being so heartfelt in a cinematic clime where hipster cool is the preferred currency. Hrishikesh Mukherjee would have been proud.
Where Aashayein begins to go seriously wrong is when it begins to embrace the whimsical and the supernatural, in the subplot instigated by the boy Govinda (Ashwin Chitale), who’s assumed to have a hotline to the heavens. Kukunoor wants to infuse an element of overt heroism into his hero’s quest to conquer his predicament, which is why the “quest” becomes literal, akin to an Indiana Jones adventure for the Holy Grail. (Here, of course, the Holy Grail is life itself). This also ties in with how Rahul has been presented to us – as a macho stud who grabs life by the balls. Not only is his apartment adorned with posters of testosterone explosions like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, even his so-called career (he makes a living betting on cricket matches) is an ode to macho recklessness. When the bookie advises him to keep some money aside for a rainy day, Rahul simply says, “Sab kuch ya kuch nahin,” all or nothing. So it makes sense that his attempt to come to terms with his subsequent condition is tinged with a cinematic sense of adventure (he refers constantly to how scenes from his life would play out in a film, and he calls his best friend, Xavier, X-Man) – the thought is sound, but the execution isn’t.
But you endure these longueurs because, by then, you’ve taken these characters to heart. Nafisa is a relatively minor part of the proceedings, and even she has traits we come to know and love – like her jaded admonition to Rahul that he shouldn’t smoke in their flat (knowing full well that he’s not going to stop), or her weakness with figures. (She reads the amount in a cheque as three lakhs, then thirty lakhs, before realising it’s actually three crores.) The inmates of the hospice are similarly sprinkled with splashes of colour – like G Parthasarathy (Girish Karnad), who keeps beat to a rock song by counting fingers in accordance with aadhi thaalam, or Madhu (Farida Jalal, cast interestingly against type), who contracted AIDS in a manner most unexpected. And even here, amidst all the cheer, there’s a sense of fate hovering overhead, like a roiling thundercloud. When Parthasarathy shows a picture of himself in front of the Twin Towers on 9/11, we’re amazed that he survived – but then he reveals that throat cancer struck him a little later. In one way or the other, we’re all doomed, so why not put on the fedora, crack the bullwhip and make a jolly adventure of it all?
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