In the best scene in Anu Menon’s Waiting, Tara (Kalki Koechlin) is sending off her friend Ishita (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee). Tara’s husband Rajat (Arjun Mathur) has been in an accident, and he’s now in a coma in a hospital in Kochi. (He was there on work; the couple lives in Mumbai.) Ishita flew down – and this is important, many days after the fact – to give moral support. But she’s called back because her son is unwell, and as her cab is about to leave, she tells Tara, “Even if they don’t come, they still care.” She’s talking about friends who’ve not been able to visit, friends who want to be there but cannot because they have their own lives – in short, she’s talking about herself. She’s “explaining” to Tara, with that single sentence, why she couldn’t come earlier, and why she has to leave now. There’s guilt in that sentence. There’s expiation. There’s also an olive branch. Those of us who’ve been in Tara’s situation know how unreasonable we can be in demanding that the world stop for us. And those of us who’ve been in Ishita’s situation know that best friends cannot always do the things best friends are supposed to do. It isn’t selfishness. It’s survival.
So far, so good. Ishita has explained herself, Tara has accepted this explanation. They’re in a good place, the place where one is grateful to have this friend, where the other is grateful she can be of help to this friend. Then, Ishita decides to offer some advice. She knows Tara has not told Rajat’s mother about the accident (they don’t get along), and as a mother of two, she feels Tara owes Rajat’s mother this information. That does it. “Stop this patronising shit,” Tara snaps. Again, we’re getting at hard truths. As long as people say the things we want them to say, we’re okay. Otherwise… In Tara’s outburst, you sense the resentment she’s been harbouring against Ishita, which had just about simmered down after her visit and is now rising again. You also sense her frustration, her anger. She knows Ishita is right, but she doesn’t want to admit it – it’s easier to dismiss her. Dammit, you can’t land up late and hold my hand for a couple of days and dump me with advice before flying back to your fabulous life.
Had all of Waiting cut this deep, we’d have had a soul-scraping drama about the agony of… waiting. Times two. For at the hospital, Tara meets Shiv (Naseeruddin Shah), who is also waiting, for his wife Pankaja (Suhasini Maniratnam, picking up the easiest pay cheque of her career) to come back from a coma. The writers set these two up as opposites. Man versus woman. Old versus young. Believer versus atheist. Genteel Wodehouse reader versus brash Twitter user who keeps saying “fuck.” A man who’s been married for four decades versus a newlywed. He’s calm. He wakes up to the alarm, shaves, showers, picks up a bag and comes to the hospital as though coming to work. He’s been doing this for months. He knows everyone at the hospital. They’re practically colleagues. She, on the other hand, is hysterical. The place is new, the people are new. But she’s willing to let Rajat go, if the doctors cannot make him the active man he was. She doesn’t want to prolong his suffering. But Shiv keeps hoping for a miracle. He wants the life he had with Pankaja, and he doesn’t think about what kind of life it might mean for her. As Dr. Nirupam Malhotra (Rajat Kapoor) tells Shiv, he’s less afraid about Pankaja dying than about how his life will change if she does.
But after all this, the most Menon can do is use these differences as the basis for a facile “buddy movie.” Shiv learns to swear. Tara visits the temple. They drink and dance. The leads do their best to make the scenes mean something, but they’re playing one-note clichés and their narrative arcs, with charmless happy-days flashbacks, are hardly revelatory. I appreciate Menon for not amping up the sentiment, especially given these surroundings, but there’s a difference between overcooked and bland – Waiting leans too much towards the latter. Everything’s on the surface, and we don’t feel for anyone. Shiv is so Zen, his grief is abstract. (It’s funny when he says he cheated on his wife during a college reunion in 1984, because that’s around the time Masoom was made, and it made me think of Shiv as an older version of the character Naseeruddin Shah played in that film.) It’s nice to see a Bollywood film set so far down south, with people conversing in Malayalam, but after a while, I grew tired of Shiv and Tara, and wanted to get a glimpse of the lives of the people around them. Like Shiv’s neighbour, who keeps sending him food. Or Dr. Malhotra, who’s been at this for so long that he can switch instantly from his grave face (while talking to patients’ families) to his goofy face (while talking to his family, about it being sambar night yet again). He gets a good scene when his carefully composed facade breaks as people with Googled-up medical facts presume to know better than him. I wish I’d seen more of him. It can’t be easy, being expected to play God and alleviate everyone’s waiting.
- Masoom = see here
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