They say it’s the winter of our lives. The cold, indifferent years where even we seem to reconcile with the spectre of loneliness, distance from worldly affections and self-denial as a principle. Society stamps us with our age, as if to tell senior citizens how to walk, talk or behave. So even someone as young as me knows there will be tropes I’ll be expected to adhere. ‘You look young for your age’, an otherwise common put down that trails us from middle age itself, especially is given out as a compliment. Of course there are other qualifiers like ‘graceful’, ‘dignified’. ‘Ageing gracefully’ supersedes them all.
But as much as senior citizens of our world are treated just as purveyors of wisdom and akin to an oak tree providing fleeting branches of the new generation with shade, storytelling always finds exciting ways to rewrite those narratives. When the weight of the world post retirement is lifted off our backs, a completely new or forgotten adventure left hidden in crannies of our own making can be unleashed. Or it can be a journey of struggles negotiated while combating with the evil of societal neglect. It’s the journey ahead that pulls us towards different directions. Age just doesn’t have to mean putting an end to a sense of wonder or hope. Or even self-love.
Two cinematic works that I watched recently revitalized the idea of one’s later years.
SHONAR PAHAR(GOLDEN HILL, 2018) is the first instance, a Bengali drama directed by Parambrata Chattopadhyay, the beloved Rana from Kahaani, in his screenwriting and directorial debut.
The movie begins with an elderly lady in her seventies ( legendary Tanuja) suffering a fall and needing medical aid in as much as lifting her up. She has become trapped by the stereotypes or rather realities of dotage. Occupying a home all by herself in Calcutta, her son(Jisshu Sengupta) is cold and distant and she is surly and dejected with her present condition. You see, it’s not easy living on earthly realm for those many years since age has a way of catching up physically more than mentally. The toll of almost certain and expected alienation from offsprings and extended relatives is, hence, equivalent to a greater awareness nobody actually wants to accept.
This film is acutely aware of the reality that the innocence that parents and children share when the latter unit is young can hardly be sustained. In the absence of those filial bonds, the elderly waste away, flitting through one day after another. But time stays still. Hope remains dimmed. As if it’s the natural course of life. Mrs. Upama, here, is then introduced to a chirpy seven year old( an excellent Srijato Bandhopadhyay) by her son’s childhood friend( the film’s director and fine actor Parambrata), a social worker running an NGO for orphans with his touch of brightness. His genuine care and concern for them is supreme. The real touch of brightness here is with the young boy Bitlu, who has nobody to call his own and is full of fearless curiosity about people irrespective of how things will turn out to be. His inquisitive nature and silver tongue do not exactly sit well with Upama Dadi in the beginning. It’s a natural way of showing how difficult it is to accept change after adjusting to a hampered pace of life.
Bitlu has no expectations from anyone, abiding by his innocence and aware about his chronic illness. That level of uncertainty regarding one’s mortal coil puts him parallel to the old lady herself. Her awareness of neglect from her son and daughter in law is parallel to Bitlu’s own experiences as an orphan, as when he relates that in one household, his naughty tricks got him beaten up and washing the utensils. Another strand that makes them equals cutting across their age difference is that Bitlu has an acute imagination, down to making up whole cricket matches and reading children’s tales with animated fervour, an expressiveness typical of his age. It helps that when he stumbles upon Upama Dadi’s own cache of brilliant children’s tales written by her years ago in a dusty file, the common ground is established. The tale with the magic pencil written by her particularly is poignant, given that it takes a leaf out of her years as a single mother when she would write these tales for her son and he would provide them with illustrations.
He helps her to come out of her shell, allowing her to dine at Marriot, learn to drive and even go to Sikkim to watch the actual SHONAR PAHAR, i.e. Kanchenjunga. All these are adventures they share together.
Every writer has a story to tell that goes beyond the pages, a journey of pain and hope that transmutes to joy and catharsis when put in ink. SHONAR PAHAR is like that journey. The real crux here is on the fraught bonds shared between adults. The triumph is when the child desires to see her tale of the titular Golden Hill be completed, a tale she left at midpoint, on the threshold of growing burdens that engulfed her life. It also soured the friendship mother and son shared because that’s the real one we have and must share with our parents. Bitlu is like the son she lost to vagaries of worldly wise ways and time as also her grandchild. That’s why it is so imperative to preserve their innocence. This work makes it clear.
The complexity of her fraying bond with her son is what she needs to clear to reach fruition as a creative voice even when she regains her flow of self-expression.
Nothing should ever make us cease our dreams at midpoint even if the whole world asks us to. Even if we threaten to give up. On the threshold of getting her works published for the first time in her long life, Upama Dadi’s journey is of second chances where certain physical fragilities like a hobbled walk and tentative mood swings may remain intact but the mental rejuvenation occasioned by creating ignites a rebirth. Bitlu is the child as the father of man in this charming instance.
SHONAR PAHAR is about that quest, the urgency of age and familial rifts but above all it’s about the principle of self-internalization. We need to be authors of our present and hand it over as a legacy to our children. Once again, Bengali cinema scores with its emotional depth and sense of wonder.
Watching it reminded me of Satyajit Ray and his family run children’s magazine SANDESH as also his own prolific contribution to the canon with Feluda tales. Plus, there’s a charming appearance by the legendary Saumitra Chatterjee.
Another work which I was so passionate about and was lucky to watch was NOMADLAND(2020). It’s close to my heart because of its transcendence in terms of not just storytelling and focus on a niche social milieu but in its dignified celebration of inclusive humanity. All these make up the fabric of a community that specifically finds takers in those above sixty years of age and even older. Having lived their years affixed to the conventional way, they now truly explore what it means to be alive without subsuming their thoughts with how much time they have left with them.
None of it is so difficult to understand. It’s about the choice to live without worldly burdens after tending to them for a long and often precarious lifetime. This arena of existence is a rebirth. Frances McDormand is the heart, soul and embodiment of that undying spirit, an individual named Fern who refuses to be defined by her circumstances. She becomes one with her peers, defying mortality, grief, dependency on others and even the loss of her whole small town in a post recession scenario. In a way, her story is distinctly the American one, guided by self-reliance and a joy for work even as the majority spells the option of an ‘early retirement’
Director, screenwriter and editor Chloe Zhao richly invests her observational growth and most of all evolution on the road. Apropos of her other creative partner Joshua James Richards whose cinematography captures the panorama of the American West as also Fern’s own practical odyssey. But it’s a journey of the soul, of the essence of life found in freedom and in the company of like-minded people. As one of the many voices inform us through the course of the story, Fern’s lifestyle is not very different from those of the pioneers who founded the nation by traversing so many roads not taken. Ultimately, it’s about self-love, a concept so foreign to us in all our years. Letting go of the past. Exhaling in the presence of nature. There are some truly magical passages here centred on her wordless sojourn in the lap of the elements. The open sea gives her a joy unlike any other. The open road takes her to unfamiliar terrains and into the hearts of many she loves dearly as friends. The wind becomes her constant companion throughout then. The water purifies her after she makes her RV her home and settles for an ablution in a serene stream.
Zhao employs real-life nomads like LINDA MAY, SWANKIE and BOB WELLS who play themselves and extend their own experiences in stirring portraits. I love how Fern becomes a receptacle and is portrayed here as a listener, given to no verbosity. They have physical and emotional pain to spare but choose to carry on than wallow in regrets, of what could have been. These are unforgettable moments that will not be lost in the bustle of cinema.
NOMADLAND is a cinema of serenity and its piano led score attests to that. In the face of financial difficulty and isolation in our own lives now, it helps to gain insights into how we can be one with our true selves. Even when we are written off as eccentrics and senile. That is the universal portrait that transcends age and location to become endearing to us. NOMADLAND is hence beautiful, poetic and very, very immersive.
I watched VOLVER(2006) over two nights on &Prive channel and the chance to savour the many flavours of a Pedro Almodovar work I had read so much about back in the day, in multiple publications, was cherished by me.
Coming from the acclaimed Spanish filmmaker, its setting in the arid countryside reminded me of Federico Garcia Lorca’s oeuvre while the cast of females of varying ages took me back to his seminal and widely performed play THE HOUSE OF BERNANDA ALBA.
VOLVER incorporates domestic abuse, financial difficulties, myths of the land and a family of three generations in one compact screenplay marrying the sordid with the heart-warming. They are handled in a manner that respects the agency of these lives and hence its universality is earned.
The universality can be found when a woman sings her favourite ballad at a social get together presided over by her after years of shutting herself off from her aspirations. Or when secrets pass from mothers to daughters. The camaraderie between all of them is marred by rumours, interruptive patriarchal behaviours and the whiff of generational madness.
But they hold fort above them all. This gifted ensemble comprising of Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Duenas, Yohana Cobo, Blanca Portillo and Chus Lampreave is excellently attuned to each other’s bearings. VOLVER then becomes a complete experience, imbued with real and burning personal issues.