Ventilator, A Death In The Gunj And Hindi Medium Are Restoring Our Faith In The Craft Of Cinema
The predictable drama of highs and lows on Fridays has become so dreary and littered with lacklustre films that you can’t even remember the next day. In this dreary desert of wasted effort (the producer’s) and time (ours), three films from the recent past restore faith in the art and craft of cinema. Ventilator, Death in the Gunj and Hindi Medium (to a lesser extent) are all so different in language (Marathi, English and the swag of Dilliwali Hindi), cast (who are actors first), milieu (from authentic to surreal) and narrative style. There is something intangible that connects Rajesh Mapuskar, Konkona Sensharma and Saket Chowdhury, beyond the arbitrary yoking together by a critic looking for connections. I find that they share a commonality: a sincere, personal investment in the stories they tell us, with a transparent faith in the craft of the narrative. They all have a message integral to the narrative, but each of them has a personal way of communicating that message – Mapuskar through a skilful blend of humour, satire and empathy, Sensharma’s subtlety is tinged with melancholy poetry, and Chowdhury is dramatically preachy – and thus, more popular. But the sure thing is that all three films work so well in what the directors set out to do.
Three such different directors, very different set of actors and very, very different styles and narrative intent. Taken together, they manage to spin a magic of a special, rare kind which proves that something happens to a filmmaker who finds the right actors and right setting to transcend the mundane, taken for granted professionalism of filmmaking, to raise our viewing experience to a whole new level. This doesn’t happen often, but when it happens across language, subject matter and sensibilities, we feel we have the found the director’s key to organic story-telling.
Mapuskar won the National Award for Best Director for Ventilator, an unbelievably ambitious project greenlit by Priyanka Chopra. It’s not hyperbole to call this a stupendous achievement. The award is richly well deserved. Mapuskar holds together a cast of over 100 characters with amazing ease, and the action is mostly centred in a Mumbai hospital – the sprawling lobby, the narrow waiting space outside the ICU, making sorties to shops selling Ganpati idols and puja paraphernalia – they all add to the volatile mix a few households of a Ratnagiri village experience in their journey from scenic Ratnagiri to the hospital. Ironically, at the still centre of the ensuing frenzy is the paterfamilias of the Karmekar clan, hooked to a ventilator in the solemn silence of the ICU. We come to know of him by bits and pieces from the extended family that must gravitate to the hospital, inexorably carried by the ripples of anxiety operating at various levels. Looming large over everything else is the urgent problem: what will happen to the elaborate, annual preparations of the Ganpati festivals in the various households, who all have a stake in the survival of the senior Karmekar?
The person they all look up to collectively and individually is Raja (Ashutosh Gowarikar, who began his career as an actor) as the cousin, nephew, friend and an authentic celebrity. It is a stroke of genius to make Raja a successful Marathi director working in Bollywood. Mapuskar’s alter ego, or a brilliant casting coup? It’s no surprise that Priyanka Chopra is the star of his latest film, and she makes a predictable cameo appearance as herself, to the immense gratification of the star-struck throng, who have more than momentarily forgotten the man in the ICU. Mapuskar is brilliant in the seamless way he brings in the everyday concerns of the people gathered there, who have time for gossip, matchmaking and speculations about frayed father-son relationships that are not hidden from the extended family.
The emotional core of the film is three such father-son relationships, that run the gamut of degrees of alienation and exasperation. Raja’s uneasy equation with his widowed father (Satish Alekar, who says so much with his silence) stems from the fact that his mother was reduced to needy dependency by the quietly domineering husband. He feels closer to the uncle in the ICU, whose disappointment with and disapproval of his son Prasanna’s (Jitendra Joshi) involvement in local politics is common knowledge. The third such relationship is minor and more in the nature of comic relief. Prasanna’s politics includes collecting funds for the Ganpati pandal, and he is more worried about his position in the party hierarchy than the decision he has to make about his father: to keep him on the ventilator (who will bear the cost in this upscale hospital?) or unhook the apparatus.
Mapuskar weaves into this central dilemma a host of other concerns and sub-plots, to make his film engaging at many levels. It is a superbly written screenplay, an amalgam of moods and tones. How fluidly he slips from black humour to wry satire to sympathy and compassion attests to good writing matched by sharp editing. He makes us remember a minor character, without reducing the necessary unique quirk to caricature. Of course, you have to cast the right actors. Regulars of Marathi cinema, TV and stage will recognise the actors, but for someone like me, who can only spot the most obvious faces and names, Ventilator is a revelation of ensemble acting on a huge scale, unparalleled in all my years of film-watching. The only examples I can think of are from Malayalam cinema: parallel cinema greats John Abraham’s docu-fiction epic Amma Ariyan, Aravindan’s Kummaty and then the routine hit maker Priyadarshan’s screwball comedy set in a village, where everyone is chasing a lottery ticket.
At one level, Ventilator is a prodigious feat of production control and managing the logistics of shooting in a real place. Sulabha Arya, who plays the anxious wife of the senior Karmekar, said it was shot in a real hospital, without disrupting the routine and care of other patients. More than the sheer logistics, what is most endearing and impressive is Mapuskar’s control of the emotional flow, the dynamics between scenes of almost farcical humour and quiet moments of interaction, leading to the inevitable introspection by estranged sons. On all fronts, Ventilator is a winner that sets the bar high for originality and execution. The director takes what we would pigeonhole as a Hrishikesh Mukherjee theme to a whole different level. Satire without malice is very rare. Ventilator observes a huge cast of characters under stress, with candour and affection, reacquainting us with familiar and familial situations, forcing us to recognise ourselves and near ones – if we are honest.
A similar grain of honesty in observing a family and close friends on vacation runs through Sensharma’s A Death in the Gunj. The time is the 1970s, the place, sleepy Macluskiegunj in what is now Chhattisgarh. We hardly go out of the parental bungalow of the Bakshi couple from Kolkata (Gulshan Devaiah and Tilottama Shome), with their 8-year-old daughter Tani and two cousins Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) and Shutu (Vikrant Massey). The senior Bakshis (Om Puri and Tanuja) are an amicably squabbling couple, roused out of their routine to rustle up fun. New Year is just days away. Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) the strutting stud and Brian (Jim Sarbh), a local Anglo-Indian looking for a job, are the welcome visitors to liven up things. The old Anglo-Indian town is evoked through conversation and the general air of torpor, rather than actual visuals.
The jungle is almost a living entity impinging on the house and its resident, somehow unleashing primaeval instincts unbeknownst to them, peeling off layers of casual, unthinking cruelty and digging deeper into corrosive hurt and rejection of the person chosen to be the butt of jokes. And that person is Shutu, the quiet, self-effacing poor relation at the beck and call of everyone, constantly picked on and humiliated by the very people he thinks are his family. Heating up this Woody Allenesque dynamic – superficially charming at one level and deeply disturbing as the week goes by – is Mimi’s blatant sexuality, which seems contagious as the hours pass by.
I read somewhere about what Aparna Sen said about her daughter’s debut film. The influence revealed between the frames and under the layers of A Death…is Peter Weir’s cult classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Sensharma’s atmospherics – it evolves organically – are a tribute to Weir’s haunting lyricism and abiding mystery. What is important is how she has made authentic the subliminal inspiration. She owns it by making it intrinsic to her own film. Vikrant Massey is a revelation as an actor. The shyness, coupled with a willingness to please others, is a self-protective cover. We see the wounds to an already fragile psyche caused by Mimi’s wanton cruelty. Mimi casually seduces Shutu, the available male, when Vikram (her real target), opts for discretion over dalliance as a newly married man. Then she rejects him with careless brutality. That is how the jungle- in the form of human predators – extracts its price in blood.
Sensharma suggests the languor of hot summer afternoons even as everyone is bundled up in shawls and sweaters for Bihar’s winter – a paradox that works as an intriguing metaphor. Being an actor perhaps helped Sensharma create space for all her actors – even the maid with a couple of scenes, who grumbles about the extra work – so that they enter the skin of their characters and live therein. This is an unsettling film that quietly leads to a foretold tragedy. And yet, when tragedy strikes, accumulated, collective guilt hits like a sledgehammer. Sensharma has given notice. She is a director with an assured voice of her own.
Hindi Medium panders to our popular prejudices cleverly, to underline a failing we all share, whether we accept it or not: our collective hang-up with English and judging a person by how well or badly he/she speaks a language. Chowdhury is too canny to make the message preachy. He opts for broad farce, where the lead characters are authentic and grounded in a recognizable milieu, slotting others into familiar stereotypes. The westernized rich of Vasant Vihar are all shallow snobs, while the poor of Bharatnagar are genuine and helpful. The stereotypes are necessary for the situational comedy working along the lines of broad farce. This is farce with a heart that is in the right place.
When you have Irrfan Khan inhabit the unlikely hero Raj Batra with such ease, half the work is done. A tailor’s assistant to a Chandni Chowk tycoon specialising in rip offs of the Manish Malhotra brand of wedding lehangas, shifting from familiar territory to snooty Vasant Vihar so that his little daughter can go to a top Delhi school and then live in a slum… the mindboggling transition is ridiculously easy because underneath it all, the man is true to his core. He can’t say no to his wife Mita (Saba Qamar), a flaky mother obsessed with her only child’s education. Her arc of reasoning jumps from wrong school to depression to drugs with such urgent energy that you understand why doting Raj gives in to her project: get the tot into any one of the five best English medium schools in the capital.
The director gleefully takes us through the travails the couple willingly undergoes, taking lessons in etiquette from the busy, uncaring consultant, to shifting to a slum to get a seat under the Right To Education quota. Deepak Dobriyal is the helpful Shyam, the new neighbor who takes it upon himself to educate the obviously new poor into the real ways of poverty. He is after all a khandani garib, from generations ago. Dobriyal is a match for Irrfan Khan, and the screenplay is written in such a way that the relationship is the true transformative agent in the attitude of the rich masquerading as poor. Without this interaction, Hindi Medium would not have worked. Chowdhury’s skill is in making us believe in the genuine feelings under the farce and making us tolerate – if not swallow – the utopian ending. He also makes us realise how the slavish elevation of English is in the DNA of our colonised minds. For cinema to go beyond entertainment, to lead us to some kind of self-recognition, is uncommon and these three films do it – each in its own way. This needs to be applauded.