Watching Rajat Kapoor’s marvellous Ankhon Dekhi, you may find yourself wishing that we had one of those “Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture” awards. The casting is perfect, the performances exquisite. It’s a cliché to say that an actor has “lived” his role – but that sense of not-acting-but-being is all-pervasive here. As the film opens, we seem to be in a family drama, woven around the members of a joint family scrunched up in a small house in Old Delhi – Bauji (Sanjay Mishra), his wife Pushpa (Seema Pahwa), Bauji’s younger brother Rishi (Rajat Kapoor), Rishi’s wife Lata (Taranjeet Kaur), and assorted children and relatives. There is much love in this motley bunch – not the filmy love that’s advertised in capital letters and declared through song, but the kind that’s present in families. It’s a lived-in kind of love, so taken for granted sometimes that an outsider looking in may see only bickering and hate. When Bauji quits his job, Lata grumbles to Rishi that they’re left bearing the household expenses, and when Pushpa makes a fuss after accidentally handling a hot utensil she gives Lata an earful. But when Rishi belts his son for failing in maths, Lata complains to Pushpa about how unreasonable he is. These are complex bonds. These people may have their problems with one another, but they also come together when it matters. It’s how families are in life, and it’s how families were in Hindi cinema – say, in the Hrishikesh Mukherjee films like Khubsoorat and Bawarchi, where one didn’t have to go abroad to experience epiphanies. The household was world enough.
But we see, slowly, that there’s more to Ankhon Dekhi than these expertly observed domestic vignettes. When Bauji’s daughter Rita (Maya Sarao) is found to be in love with Ajju (Namit Das) – “ladka theek nahin hai,” says Rishi, clearly convinced that he is right in reprimanding his niece, that it is his business – Rishi and a few others (there’s even a cop) go to Ajju’s house and rough him up. Bauji is there too, but once he sees the rather pathetic-looking Ajju, he’s no longer convinced about the “ladka theek nahin hai” assessment. He comes home and tells Pushpa that Ajju is a nice boy – he’s made an “ankhon dekhi” judgement of Ajju. That sets him off. He decides he’s never going to believe or endorse anything that he hasn’t seen for himself. We’re deposited squarely in the realm of whimsy. In a brilliantly staged stretch set in the courtyard – every young director (and even some of the older ones) should study this scene, where members of the family heat water and take turns to bathe, to see how to choreograph ordinary movement – Bauji declares that even newspapers are untrustworthy. Who, after all, has seen these things happen? Why blindly accept someone else’s truth? “Apna sach dhoondh,” he says. He’s so caught up in this fervour that he forgets to wear pants.
The comic setups that follow are superb. Bauji accepts prasad from the local priest but says it’s just kalakhand, and later, when the annoyed priest asks him if he will accept the presence of God only if He makes an appearance, Bauji says that that would be ideal. Imagine what it would be like, he says, “Yahan baithke chai pee rahe hain, Shiv ji ke saath.” In another side-splitting encounter, Bauji locks horns with a maths teacher who insists that parallel lines meet at infinity.
Just what is happening here? One theory could be that Bauji is experiencing male menopause, something that’s laughingly suggested by a relative. (Would these folks use a phrase like “male menopause,” though?) Bauji, in other words, is neck-deep in a midlife crisis, and because he cannot buy a Ferrari and bang his secretary, he has found something different to lift his life out of the rut. He has a new “project.”
But there’s something else. Bauji has become some kind of Shakespearean fool, dispensing simple truths amidst all the drollery. And this gyaan makes the people around him treat him like a guru. How ironic. Here’s Bauji insisting that one should believe only what can be validated, and these others are blindly flocking to him. The film, at this point, could be called The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. Bauji seems to be looking for something, seeking – what it is, he doesn’t know, and neither do we. In one scene, we see him on the roads, holding up a sign that advises people to open their eyes and trust only what they can see – and yet, this doesn’t build into anything. It just is. And life goes on. The film is right in refusing to make a jadoo-ki-jhappi-like movement out of Bauji’s ankhon-dekhi tenet, for whatever’s happening isn’t external but internal.
And this, inevitably, results in some frustration, especially as the latter portions become looser, more impressionistic. There are things Bauji gets into – illegal gambling, a vow of silence (that’s contrasted, hilariously, with scenes of a boy who just won’t stop talking), the decision to do away with borders on Rita’s wedding invitations – that we accept as strands of this film’s surreal DNA while simultaneously wondering if all this eccentricity is heading somewhere. And I wasn’t sure how literally to take the end, even if it has been hinted at earlier. Luckily, the more mundane domestic issues are always around. By now, Rishi has moved to another house and the resulting cold war between the brothers provides the emotional grounding through the surrounding flights of fancy. Kapoor doesn’t cheapen these bonds by staging big moments that invite us to weep. Even when the brothers embrace tearfully, we cut quickly to a relative who suggests that someone should take a picture of them. The sentiment is defused. And life goes on.
* Ankhon Dekhi = something that’s been seen/witnessed
* “ladka theek nahin hai” = this boy isn’t okay
* “Apna sach dhoondh” = seek your own truth
* prasad = holy offering
* kalakhand = a milk sweet
* “Yahan baithke chai pee rahe hain, Shiv ji ke saath.” = We’re sitting here, having a hot cuppa with Shiva.
* gyaan = wisdom/knowledge
* jadoo-ki-jhappi = a magic hug, as espoused by the Munnabhai movies
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.