ON BODY AND SOUL : on ONCE AGAIN(2018) and THE DANISH GIRL(2015)

The two films I talk about here in my latest post really showed me what compassion was all about. So many times as adults navigating our concrete jungles, we wonder if compassion is just an overarching concept hardly practiced by anyone when the time to even look up at others and maintain so much as basic eye contact in the course of a casual conversation is scarce. Or is it a mere word sprung from our extensive vocabulary, so we muse.

In the Indian film ONCE AGAIN(2018) and THE DANISH GIRL (2015), I found the central couples followed what I wrote as the heartfulness way defined as “to seek essence beyond the form, the reality behind the ritual. To centre oneself at the core of one’s heart and find true meaning and contentment there” – Google.

Basically, the evasive world of inclusion is sought here and is offered by those willing to look ahead of the obvious trappings of binaries and certain mental precepts hardwired into us as human beings. It’s not merely humanity’s fault that conventions are sometimes blindly followed and these films take leaps of faith in their own quiet revelations opposite to what the mainstream dictates. To touch lives is to consider the other side and instinctively see that a way forward is necessarily a ‘ heartfelt’ realization; that as painful and discomforting situations are, we have to face challenges and seek what the other wants even if it entails getting distanced from that person . The struggles on the personal front for both somehow merge.

Ultimately both these works parallel how decency is maintained in the public sphere as private churnings take all our time and effort. They have the essence that comes with mutual understanding and a sanctity unaffected by outside interferences as a sense of purity shared by two transcends the threshold of wagging tongues and fear of persecution, no matter how internalized they are or silently they operate.

*******

ONCE AGAIN(2018)

DIRECTOR : KANWAL SETHI.

CAST: SHEFALI SHAH, NEERAJ KABI, RASIKA DUGGAL, PRIYANSHU PAINYULI, BIDITA BAG, BHAGWAN TIWARI.

*** I write this post solely about ONCE AGAIN while the one on THE DANISH GIRL will follow next. That will evenly distribute the written output individually for both.

*****

ONCE AGAIN is a German Indian co- production directed by Kanwal Sethi that illustrates the industrious, global roots of the Bombay film industry and by extension Indian cinema since each region / state has its own film model to boot. It’s glorious in the elegance and touch of class that the script has but there’s a pitfall too as in its severely limited release, it may lose out on its niche audience; because let’s face it, a film as measured and slow boil as this can hardly find a mainstream, as unjust as it is. That’s just the case with audience tastes, box office and the modus operandi of exhibition. A platform like Netflix, YouTube and the larger digital medium is a blessing for films of this ilk as one can discover it and savour its unhurried rhythm and regard for minute nuances. I had already watched the trailer of ONCE AGAIN and when I found it on the list of Indian films on Netflix, I knew I had to make a commitment . So I did, on a relaxed Saturday afternoon. That’s where Netflix excites me, it will host a whole roster of blockbusters and not look the other way at these hidden gems which are most ripe for discovery. ONCE AGAIN certainly made its way in my list of current favourites, as it released last month.

Another point about its global nature : its universal title is in the English language but the whole feature is steeped in absolutely Indian cultural practices – from the food to the dresses to the interactions in Hindustani. It’s a lesson in the learned fact that we don’t have to stray too far from our own cultural point to be visible to the world at large. In terms of stories, treatment and emotions that we get to disseminate, well, they are all universal. So a common ground will be reached eventually. A collaborative work as this only strengthens our beliefs that the world, indeed, is a small place.

The protagonists here, too, find a common ground in the teeming sea of humanity that is Mumbai and after holding themselves back for many years are shown to claw back to the mature vistas of middle age. They are essentially people who hold no ruse with others even if it means denying themselves a second chance and in many contemplative sequences that are like stationary stills, their expressions vie for a moment of companionship against the silences wrought by conditioned thoughts of society.

Shefali Shah is Tara Shetty, a woman who was widowed when her son was merely a toddler and like several other females has remained on a sterile patch of the so called urban social sphere, never pursuing a relationship and relentlessly committed to holding together her marital family’s traditional restaurant, that with time, is facing lack of funds for its upkeep . But her culinary skills have made her stand in good stead and she handles the financial aspects of this enterprise too that, of course, faces the onslaught of rapid modern overhauls, tucked away as it is in an old part of Bandra that to the current eye looks dated and niche. A far cry from the bistros and posh subculture of South Bombay or any other upscale ecosystem.

There are several sequences that show her preparing dishes in the claustrophobic, humid, dilapidated interiors of the restaurant kitchen where fragrant aromas mingle with the unforgiving smoke, heat of the working conditions and the sweat and grind of her limited assorted staff. She heads them, putting her indelible touch and finesse to these carefully preserved dishes that are a part of her legacy as a Mangalorean. She is an expert chef but the lack of fancy trappings to her establishment mark her out as another hardworking individual lost in the haze of the big city. A symbol of the middle class that is independent, educated and holds reins of resources but still remains anonymous . However, her talent is not an afterthought as we discover that veteran star Amar Kumar( Neeraj Kabi), really a loner in a galaxy that adores him even in his middle age for his gifts as a performer, and a divorced man himself, is her kindred. He has been consuming her hand made food for dinner for quite some time which is shorn of any kind of artificial ingredients and this becomes a link that brings them together. Soon correspondences through daily phone calls metamorphose into clandestine meetings where the platonic purity of this bond invites an awakening of the senses. These scenes shine with an informality and the restraint , confusions and innocence of two people who are vastly different socially but are equally pegged given the dignity and old world charm with which they involve themselves, both hesitant to leave constraints of an inhibited, older generation that doesn’t live by public displays of affection yet knowing that the silent longing for each other is all that can sustain them, for the present. They live one day at a time.

The sound department comprising of Mohandas and Ayush Ahuja should be lauded for capturing every honk, faraway hum and crowded foregrounding of Mumbai with such tact. It is within this atmosphere of ‘Shor sharaaba(noise)’ that both branch out to find their little moments. They build an idyllic spot for human interaction within this ever evolving cosmopolitan and largely dog eared expectations of a youth oriented culture. They may be in their late forties or early fifties but pave the way for the particularity of every new beginning, age no bar. Kanwal, the director, and writer Ajitpal Singh beautifully enliven this joint partnership with their sensitivity. They bring a silence to the chaotic current of Tara and Amar’s busy individual lives.

It’s no doubt that the music by Talvin Singh( employing classical instruments) , editing by Soren B. Ebbe, Anja Siemens and Andreas Wodraschke, cinematography by Eeshit Narain all make it a gorgeously intimate, realistic take and help us as viewers get safely interspersed in the inner worlds of the protagonists. I am really impressed by the team’s integrity for keeping things au natural, never betraying the gravity of situations and minding the fact that conflicts of this kind, of love taking course between middle aged people against others’ judgements , is internalized and warrants the same kind of hue onscreen. Here Tara’s soon to be married son Dev ( Priyanshu Painyuli) reveals shades of misogyny when he comes to know about his mother’s relationship with Amar, a man he looks up to, and shows dependence and immaturity in many instances, essentially a man- child who cannot bear the weight of responsibilities as the younger sibling and is selfish and lacking in the subtleties of real life owing to his youth. His older sibling, on the other hand, Mira ( Bidita Bag) works, lends support to Tara in this moment of crisis and is a dignified presence. Amar’s daughter Sapna( the ever reliable Rasika Duggal) is a sweet young lady who understands and stands by her father’s love for Tara and even though a broken family has given her silences of her own, she is level headed and reasonable, just like her father. An emotional scene is built around this when she breaks down in his presence on her birthday. The mindsets of the younger demographic reveals a great sense of how genders react to the older prefects. It’s done quietly and effectively; so that there are more subtexts we take away than what is portrayed. That is the power of good storytelling.

Now those who like to nag will paint the screenplay as too dour, too slow, too self indulgent. To each his own. I would like to say that we defeat our own yearning for a finer sensibility when we point out these familiar tropes. Instead of cribbing, sceptical viewers should go for a change of pace. More so as the screenplay respectfully delves deep into the middle class sensibility of even the actor who prefers street food when out and rhythms of the everyday ; he has possibly risen from fits and starts to not forget that humility is the last stand in this concrete jungle where sycophancy is a de facto law around successful individuals, as in the scene where he is clearly dissatisfied with a scene he’s canning but the young director praises him, owing more to his star status than the validity of the script. Also the part where he visits and participates in a mystical dance with a dance crew on the beach can be reflective of his roots in theatre. This is a nifty touch as Neeraj Kabi has himself risen from the front ranks of the stage to the film medium in his middle age. In the preferred anonymity of his relationship with Tara, he sustains his true self, away from a particular image.

*****

Night time brings out the intimacy and lonely contours of this script in the manner in which it is captured. The passage of distance and mutual understanding when this bond becomes media fodder is also deeply reflective of the heartfulness way, as I had mentioned in the beginning. Both grant a distinctive space to each other to sort themselves out and we are never in doubt that their loyalty reigns supreme, for their family and to the one they love as partners. As if all good people have to silently withhold the storm within. Tara and Amar do that before an open ended conclusion brings the permanence of this bond to a higher plane.

All performers are effective. But the central pair are so good even scenes that we know will play out in a certain way become nuanced. Shefali, one of our very best, is a master conveyer of emotions. Her eyes are her most potent instruments, capable of expressing exasperated anger one moment, tenderness galore in the other and evincing a thousand moments worth of hurt as when Amar introduces her to his colleagues as essentially ‘ the one who makes food for me’ at a tense crossroads of their journey . A hint of class consciousness is brought to the fore; the other side of which is when the actor visits his chauffeur’s ( Bhagwan Tiwari) home and learns some hard truths about him. It tugs at our heartstrings without manipulating the moment for effect. Neeraj has the composure of a mystic, in this world and yet negotiating the blanks left in between spaces.

So the personal awakening of the two personages intertwine with social realities seamlessly. As it is in real life. Cinema of this kind beautifully attests to every nuance. Also effective is the scene where both try to conceal themselves in public as the ubiquity of phone cameras encroaches upon their privacy. The awkwardness and unpredictability registers with authenticity here as in the moment which teases Tara’s antecedents in classical dance that she forsook for the sake of other responsibilities. It’s deservingly sensual and shot with an eye for natural cadences of her anklets used while performing and light reflected in her balcony.

The painted panorama of the closing credits then is the perfect way to end this tale that truly asks for silence and privacy for two in this island of millions. It’s a tale that is universal and particular to its own location. The global nature of ONCE AGAIN is firmly sealed.

****

“hey did you watch ONCE AGAIN buddy?”

Last but not least, go watch other features toplining the great leads. NEERAJ KABI will be a revelation in films like SHIP OF THESEUS, TALVAR, HICHKI, THE HUNGRY and the gritty and critically acclaimed worldwide phenomenon that is our homegrown Netflix series SACRED GAMES. For SHEFALI SHAH, look no further than the best for she chooses to work in few worthy works that have graced her portfolio like SATYA, MOHABBATEIN, 15 PARK AVENUE, WAQT, DIL DHADAKNE DO, MONSOON WEDDING, THE LAST LEAR and her silent knockout in the celebrated short film JUICE among others. I also reserve my praise for the adorable RASIKA DUGGAL, part of startling gems like TU HAI MERA SUNDAY, QISSA- THE TALE OF A LONELY GHOST, LUST STORIES, short film SCHOOL BAG and the recent MANTO.

******

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