The film, acquiring a cult status for itself after its 2014 release, may be holding a secret spot of success that needs to be located.
At the conclusion of a recent screening of the film “Ankhon Dekhi”, Rajat Kapoor met the intimate, chirpy, curious crowd of the houseful show for a Q&A session, beginning with a dig at the low numbers the film had received on its release by asking them- “Where were you guys when the film released”?
Well, some of them, as they also admitted with some pride, were among the few people that were in the audience on the weekend of its release in 2014. Some of them had maybe chosen to catch the show of ‘Ragini MMS 2‘ which released the same Friday in many more screens, too much higher footfall. Some of them found a decent return of their weekend movie money in the erotica and the thrill of Ragini MMS 2. But maybe they also sensed a tiny, blurry question within them somewhere, a question that is perhaps the favorite of all film questions in India today- Is this a good film to watch? Or do I have a better option for a better experience of film?
The Ankhon Dekhi spectator camp would say to that question with all earnestness in their eyes- “Yes, you do!”. Whether that’s the right answer or not is another matter. But for this night, they were all here, watching it in a full house with the filmmaker Rajat Kapoor present, together in praising and loving the film for its quality, giving it the sort of response that is characteristic of a celebrated film- heartful, collective moments of laughter, applause, silence and tears. What is it then, that truly makes this film worth looking at? I believe there are two factors, first of them being that it is a rare Hindi mainstream film that doesn’t want to make a statement on life.
Sanjay Mishra, the actor who plays the protagonist of the film, admitted famously in an interview that he himself didn’t understand the film whose making he was involved in until he saw the film and grasped that it was about understanding itself.
Most films, especially in the mainstream, depend on a statement that it wants to make through its story on some aspect of life and society. Although it can be said that any piece of Cinema, is after all an exercise in theology about our relationship with life, some films have a much more explicit statement that the conflict of their narrative eventually strives to reach. And thus these films are often much more rooted in a sociological debate. Look at how the iconic Indian film ‘Deewar’ takes up the characters of two brothers on the opposite sides of the law, to make a statement on what we understand about ‘progress’ in our society.
On the other hand, some films desire to somewhat detach themselves from any such statement and only capture how tragicomical it is to journey through life, and then the microscopic control that we have over it. Something like the Oscar-winning Italian movie “Cinema Paradiso” comes to mind, which bases itself on the meager narrative ground of the oscillation between the extremes of unrestrained bliss and boundless loneliness that we go through as we go through various steps of life.
The success of ‘Ankhon Dekhi’ is that it is able to stand as a film of the second bracket in the Indian mainstream. After reciting his dream of “flying like a bird” at the beginning of the film, Bauji is placed in his compact domestic setting, where he must meet a challenge in tackling with the revelation of his young daughter’s love interest.
This challenge soon ushers him on to a path of self-realization that one of his companions chooses to describe as “male menopause”, where he claims that he will only believe what he has experienced himself and refuse to take the world’s word for it. Is this possible? Can Bauji really detach himself from the world and fulfill his dream of flying uninhibited literally and/or figuratively? (refer to the ending of the film) And can he especially do it while a series of domestic happiness and grief take over him like seasonal changes?
A battle ensues between him and his life, and the Bauji who took that bold step before of evaluating life, often snaps in instinctive anger at his surroundings, and sits with the very familiar Indian adult awkwardness at his brother’s new home where he can’t even shape proper words to make this now estranged family an invitation for his daughter’s wedding. And this battle lifts up from the screen to mirror everyone’s constant battle with life in our embarrassing attempts at controlling it and the inevitable, resounding defeat we meet in this exercise.
Does Bauji get to eventually fly or not, literally or figuratively? I’m not going to tell you that for the sake of those from that April 2014 weekend that are yet to watch it. What I am going to say, however, is that even that ending is not a statement. It is just a means of our submission to this battle of life, in which there is both defeat and victory, or maybe none of them.
When I talk about the film here, especially to someone who has not watched the film, it can perhaps exude the idea of a film that will be a boring lecture on life. When actually it is just the opposite; it is one of the more entertaining mainstream films that you’ll find in the last few years, and those who have watched the film will surely back this claim. The film is sparkling with a soothing soundtrack and a kind of constant humor that is a memorable part of our most fond film memories, which is made even better by how here they are placed in accessible, local banter of discussions that you’ll find in any middle-class Indian neighborhood.
The crowd that watched the film in the screening that night, laughed heartily at all the antics of Bauji and his pals, then clapped rousingly in the dark of the theatre at many famous moments of the film (Seema Pahwa’s rants) and responded to the silent moments of the film where I believe the film’s success is truly witnessed.
The film is still so much more a family event in India. Whatever our foray into realism may suggest, most of us still go to the theatres to have a collective good time of a vibrant film experience. Thus, one of the biggest challenges of Cinema in our country, especially for the “Alternative Cinema” camp(for the lack of a better word), has been how to tame this vibrant crowd into listening to the silence of life in a film. Even the quieter moments of our cinema involve someone like SRK effusing a long, tearful monologue accepted by a readily watching crowd. All filmmakers, from the mainstream to the New Wave, have had different methods and responses to this.
I have been a part of three such social gatherings for “Ankhon Dekhi” and every time this one moment in the film has stayed with me for later ruminations. For all its sparkle because of its mouthwatering story in an exciting environment, as the film builds up to its interval, Bauji, stunned by the sorrow of his departed brother, picks up his phone on the following morning, and upon the caller’s demand, he calls for his Rishi to take the call. Bauji’s wife enters this space, and so does a recall of the grief from the separation, and after she takes the call and politely tells the caller about a change in their address, the husband and wife sit in broad, quite daylight with both their grief and the embarrassment from their awful response to the grief.
The interval text shows at this point, but not before the same vibrant audience who was rousing to the film a few moments ago has been tamed into stunned silence and stillness that has the most resemblance that film and life can share. There is no SRK effusion onscreen and thus no tears, but only a terrified, quiet and still a couple and a likewise film audience that is still excited about what will follow in the film from now on, with this old man in Delhi trying to gain some control over his life. Showering the crowd with the bright colors characteristic of our films, Ankhon Dekhi uses this trust to strip off all colors and place the watching crowd in the very silence of everyday life.
In this challenge of communication with the masses that Indian Cinema has faced, Mainstream and Parallel Cinema seems to be sharing each other more and more these days. Filmmaker Rajat Kapoor thanks his mentors Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani in the end credits of the film. They were two Indian filmmakers who devoted themselves in finding in the art of film, the very stillness of life, and thus largely remained in the shadows of the massive mainstream. Maybe I shouldn’t dare to say that there is a success in the appearance of their names in this celebrated film, but surely there is one in its impact on an audience that grows more and more restless every day with the Internet Content sensation, a success that is evident at that interval juncture of the film. Bauji may not have found an answer, neither did we, but Indian Cinema may have found one for itself here in this case.