A CINEMA OF LONELINESS : on PESTONJEE, THE SPINSTER and MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE

As a self confessed lover of cinema and a believer in its absolute truthfulness as a medium narrating our life scripts, I always connect the dots and discover the affinities many of the works I watch seem to share. It’s almost involuntary and as natural as my knack for discovering hidden gems. It is a familiar pattern in which these thematic elements come together to beautifully integrate and embellish this cinephile’s interests. The three films that find pride of place here namely PESTONJEE (1987), THE SPINSTER (2007) and MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE (1990) have a silence about them, manifesting in the inner lives of introverts.

That inhibition to express themselves openly is a mark of their personal nature and in each instance, a sense of self sacrifice and virtuosity of being underlines the greater suffering wrought by that same idea of non protesting individuality. It is at odds with a largely exhibitionist order of things but they cannot change themselves to betray their own natures. That, in itself, is a triumph. It makes me heartened to see that side of a personality so beautifully expressed on screen.

Another similar point present in these three works is that of loneliness characterized by being in an earmarked relationship for life (MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE) or from the voids of spinster/ bachelorhood( its literal depiction in THE SPINSTER and PESTONJEE respectively) . Companionship being parallel to our standing in the world around us, it can be a deal breaker when we fall out of that bracket . Tongue tied, non verbal articulations make these simple, loveable beings, ill fated as they cruelly are, self sufficient vessels because I believe there are people who don’t always have to subscribe to one standard norm and others must accept their placid, introverted selflessness in a non judgemental manner. It’s difficult to navigate life without feeling adequately fulfilled vis a vis relationships. Yet we live to tell our tales. Consider these three examples to crystallize in the most effective, lucid way, illuminating the unsaid ethos of lonely souls.

**

PESTONJEE

The gentle graces and then the rambunctious joie de vivre of the Parsi community has guided Indian subcontinent for generations and centuries. These two poles of personalities have endeared its industrious members and nowhere have they been captured with the singularity of purpose or diverse range of emotional fidelity as on Vijaya Mehta’s PESTONJEE (1987)

Here the focus is also on the middle classes who are not stereotypically upper crust social heads as the rest of the community for not everybody gets the same share of the pie. This film is attuned to the collected elegance and commonplace simplicity of Parsis, without caricaturing them and lastly it upholds the universal ethos of human experiences.

In the form of Piroj ( the effortless Naseeruddin Shah), his best friend Pestonjee ( Anupam Kher), Jeroo ( Shabana Azmi) and Soona ( Kiron Kher), many hued progress of individual personalities gets underway, narrated by Piroj and seen through his eyes. Unable to express his love for a woman, diffident in profusing love, always standing by his friends and a credo of communal spirit, he epitomizes decency.

As things take a different turn, his lone interior space is directly tied to the loneliness within a community. Introverted internalization is beautifully realized through objects and actions.
Like the rudimentary, old fashioned building lift . Or the interior monologue on the part of Piroj. Or the charming bits of Jeroo playing the piano and Piroj’s seaside walks by the end of his journey.

PESTONJEE is a calm and composed drama of manners. The loneliness here is affected by tables being turned on lifelong friendships with the advancement of years , changing priorities post Pestonjee’s marriage to Jeroo and loss of a loved one. Piroj is the stoic, innately human gentleman who never puts himself first and it shows him different facets of life. ‘Nothing stays the same’ is the motto we take from this screenplay.

**

THE SPINSTER ( FOUR WOMEN BY ADOOR GOPALAKRISHNAN, 2007)

This is a haunting reflection of a society where the premium is on marriage only. Like Pestonjee, this one too entails no rosy fairy tale for its protagonist. The Spinster ( actor and director extraordinaire NANDITA DAS) here is looked as a burden, an unsavoury entity, often a melancholic figure, with whom everyone keeps a distance from. It’s as if no other initiative for her exists though the titular figure here, part of an anthology on marginalized women titled FOUR WOMEN by acclaimed Indian filmmaker ADOOR GOPALAKRISHNAN, is financially stable by dint of her mother’s inheritance and family home. There is a stifling conformity and dependence on circumstances for her even in that respect.

Her silence is her only refuge because come to think of it, her conditioning itself has not left her with any other option. Her introverted nature feeds her loneliness. That lack of expressiveness is her own natural bearing but given her so called ‘station’ in life, it leads to her further marginalization. By all means, it’s a difficult place to be in, given that she has nothing to hold herself accountable for. THE SPINSTER is poignantly evocative of a million other voices as hers. That last line that I write is, in itself, ironic since Das gets to mouth not even a dozen lines here.

A passage of time, deja vu is represented by the coming and going of boats in the serene backwaters of Kerala, the film’s location. Her siblings settle down, her mother passes away and muffled whispers and simultaneous support greet her. It’s all very implicit and in the forty minutes of runtime packs a punch because the fate of the spinster / bachelor continues to still remain questionable, open to sympathy or indifference . Das is au natural.

**

MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE( 1990)

In this elegantly executed screen adaptation of two novels based on the writer’s own parents, the famed Merchant – Ivory – Ruth Prawer Jhabwala team deal with the essential internal ennui of the ‘Leisure Class’ who have all the time in the world to talk about poverty of the Europeans, feminist ideals and changing face of sexual mores for the new generation around the 1940s. The prism of this realistic tale is on the titular older couple played by legendary real life partners JOANNE WOODWARD and PAUL NEWMAN.

Mrs. India Bridge is a picture of infinite dignity who seems to hold the reins of feminine representation through the ages. She is subsumed, sublimated in the patriarchal dictations of her upbringing and universal culture that her daughters outrightly reject for themselves. To think she is a relic of the past in this present epoch will be dismissing the truth about obstinate gender dynamics persisting even in this day and age. This is what happens to almost all of us. By the time we think of coming of age, we already cross the threshold of 30 and decide the established rule must be unquestioningly followed till the longest time. It is conformity that makes us withdraw into a shell.

Mr. Walter Bridge, on the other hand, espouses the old guard, with his emphasis on duty, fidelity and dedication to sustaining bonds even when the regimented ways we have inherited from our parents creates a looming distance amongst members of a single unit. We set too many boundaries even within our families to truly reach out and touch a nerve. His case echoes that time honored complexity.

There is no love lost between them and the man particularly is faithfully attuned to his family and work. The cracks in the established order of things get visible as he is too reserved to sometimes even register his love for his wife.

This circulatory, cyclical statis informs a lifetime.

The episodic style of presenting events benefits from the performances of the whole cast, period details and the arc of unpredictable tension there is besides the gentility.

Heartbreaking instances of the son refusing to show his love to Mrs. Bridge in a public event and she getting her car jammed in the snow, with no one to listen to her cry for help display the path of alienation anchors of our families suffer. Ms. Woodward is splendid here and is all heart and soul as her good hearted smiles and impassioned emotional moments carry the weight of her world. Additionally, it holds a key to the loneliness inevitable to advanced years of our lives.

**

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