A WORTHY COLLAGE OF MULTIPLE EMOTIONS.

STAR BESTSELLERS (1999-2000)



This anthology series that aired on Star Plus India has now become legendary owing to its compact, down to earth storytelling. Those qualities pretty much were hallmarks of the 90s to 2000s era where even as the national economy opened up and created veritable opportunities for an urban, global-centric youth, a sense and penchant for simplicity was maintained in real to reel life transformations.

STAR BESTSELLERS is one among many series/films showcasing the golden era of filmmaking ethos that I go back to often. In fact just last year, I had watched and then written about one of the gems from this very series titled KABAAD, a heartwarming tale centring on the bonds of affection between two marginalized individuals- an elderly lady longing to go back to her home in a moffusil town and a scrap collector. The ending still gives me emotional goosebumps. Surekha Sikri and Raghubeer Yadav- two greats- were stellar in their veracity and socially attuned to the cadences of everyday conversation between two humble human beings.




Here, I continue that pattern and share three standout episodes from the anthology that manage to be charming, realistic, poignant and, in one particular instance, haunting passages into the heart of modern society.  All under fifty minutes.

It’s also a blessing that episodes of this series are now available in good definition on Disney+Hotstar while a few not uploaded there are up on YouTube.

***

FURSAT MEIN AKA DAYANAND PHIR BOLA( AT LEISURE/ DAYANAND SPEAKS AGAIN)

The certifiably great Irfan Khan is at his very best, complete with his poker-faced comic timing as an elderly man who is an unusual Good Samaritan. Using his powers of persuasion and affected authority, he intervenes whenever an instance of wrongdoing occurs around him.

Whether it’s a middle-aged lady being made to pay a higher amount for her regular share of grocery, a young fine arts student being harassed by a spurned pursuer, a restaurant owner firing the protagonist’s best friend, an expert chef of nearly forty years, due to its transition as an Italian fine dining spot, when two louts threaten them to leave their seat in the park or even imparting better sense to a young millennial man about the way fast food itself is a byproduct of capitalist tempers and its addictive impact that we fail to identify.



With its use of light humour such as the protagonist using seemingly self-printed cards to intervene in moments of crisis for the common man, as an authority figure in that particular area, a sharp commentary is made on the way economics and social webs pervade our diurnal interactions. It’s this simplicity and eye for detail that give it depth.

Particularly of interest are his interactions with the young painter( Bhumika Chawla) who he encourages to create but also teach others who are artistically inclined, thereby not just striving for her own individual expression, and his own daughter (Mita Vashisht). The latter is a particularly poignant exchange where his communist ethics don’t let him stay with her or her better half, both of whom work in the corporate sector, while her concern for him in old age extends itself to the point of admitting him to a special home for the elderly in Lonavala.

Also endearing is the friendship of a lifetime between him and his best friend. As they meet in the park daily, akin to a decades long ritual, all the strands come together with affable charm. Watch this one to grasp how artistic reflections on being sociable and of value in a world where self-interest rules the roost must be presented.




****

TELEPHONE

This episode directed by Shabnam Sukhdev is a psychological thriller with a strong visual motif, intimating us of society’s exploitative view of vulnerable women and the claustrophobia of enclosed spaces accorded to them.  At times, an almost noirish mood is present with its use of shadows though the story unfolds mostly around daytime, thereby subverting conventions of its telling.

None of it is more striking than in the opening minutes where the lead protagonist drives around a serene countryside, enters a tunnel on the highway where her car breaks down and her cellphone reception isn’t available. From here on, her sequestered positioning in the hands of a world ready to ensnare and prey on her vulnerability gets a chilling and hauntingly realistic delineation.



Eventually landing at a remote sanatorium housed within a sprawling colonial building, with open spaces, her position as a single woman only begging to communicate with her better half with whom she shares a deep yet fraught relationship, more of emotional distance than animosity or even bitterness, unravels. Psychological spaces here are of utmost importance. The telephone is a symbol. A metaphor.



Some of the best scenes here are where the head doctor, Mr. Nakhate, lets her believe she can open up to him about her frustrations and insecurities with his calm demeanour, only to play with her mind, her shock and bewilderment of being trapped in an unknown place, among other mentally scarred people, begging to be let go. He and the head nurse plot to bring her down through tranquilisers, pills and the emotional trauma of being sexually exploited by the latter. The power of suggestion and sinister imagery help us in achieving empathy for this young lady as her mental health is moulded and recreated to make her one among the many patients here. A sophisticated guinea pig among other helpless many, isolated from the world.

That final scene where her reunion with her partner (Raj Zutshi) ends with him fearing and simultaneously sympathising with her sorry state, certain she has devolved into mental despair after being disillusioned with their on-off dynamics, even wanting to recoil and run away from the horror of it all, is a blistering commentary on how women will always be cursed with the infected viewpoints of others. Easily presented with a distorted vision of who they are. Where their silences, vocal outpourings and even protestations all come under the masthead of  some kind of ‘madness’; hence, his promise of visiting her each week is an open-ended one. So is her future, as a prisoner of a corrupt socio-medical-psychological complex.

Kitu Gidwani, a performer who I’ve written about several times, is excellent here, attributing every psychological scar to the circumstances she is caught up in, where her own choice is zilch. You’ll be haunted by a gender-bending inmate’s dance in the balcony, by the shrieks and close-ups of these women, by the way they all witness the protagonist as she is pulled away and then physically used by the female nurse off-camera and by the final waltz, in a shabby, congested room allotted to them.

They just can’t make them like this anymore.


****

SHURUAT(BEGINNING)

The end can often be the beginning of relationships. It can also sustain a life-long friendship between people who are traditionally seen as antithetical to each other’s well-being: a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law. This is where SHURUAT/BEGINNING sheds stereotypes to build a beautiful bond between these two women who both are at a crossroads of their lives.  The concept of chosen family cannot find a more suitable example than this.

A divorce by mutual consent between partners who never had any ill-will or rancour against each other reflects in the phone call he makes to the lady’s house in the presence of his mother, where he knows the latter has gone to visit her. A mother- in- law bonds with her, full of natural ease that even legal separation cannot bind in complicated knots. While the older lady second- guesses her own role in perhaps not being as responsible towards both individuals whom she loves dearly, the young lady battles depression as also experiencing financial freedom through work.



The crux here is in how simplicity, innocence and pure hearts can mend broken ones, positing a break away from social stigmas and replacing them with sheer goodwill.


Rajit Kapur’s direction here is sensitive, mature and way ahead of the times given it was made twenty years ago. But I feel only our individual choices can make us combat regressive straitjackets. Move ahead of the times.

My biggest takeaway from this episode was the breath of fresh air that was Sulbha Arya’s excellent supporting arc as a doctor, family friend and guide. She helps us see that just because two people are separated doesn’t mean they are broken, that her best friend Urmila shouldn’t be guilty of anything. She is also a defender of Sameera’s freedom as a single woman, egging her to exorcise her own guilt and shame. To live life alone or with someone is a choice. Her peppy, practical presence thus helps to ground the beloved central duo’s bond further, elevated by the performances of real-life mother-daughter pair Sushma and Divya Seth. In fact, Ms. Arya’s presence also helps to destigmatize the thorny issue of abortion in the final exchange.

Maturity is of the essence here and a solidarity pervades this trio. I loved it and have revisited it today again.

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