Rajat Kapoor’s new film Ankhon Dekhi opened with rave reviews. Though it has been a limited release, if you still haven’t seen it, do watch. It’s easily one of the finest films of the year. And if you have seen it, here’s Fatema Kagalawala on what worked and what didn’t. Read on to see if you agree or not.
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Are stories set in a real-life world created with an unimaginable honesty, enough? Remember this line as you read along.
There are films that are character-centric, there are films that are character-driven, there are plot-driven films and there are those where the idea looms large enough to swipe everything under its shadow. Ankhon Dekhi is one of those films. Truth is your inner truth, your own truth, what you can see and feel and experience. Can a theme get more universal and personal at the same time than that? Can a theme get more exciting, thirsting to be explored threadbare than that?
“There are only two days that are important in life; the day you were born and the day you realise why.” – Mark Twain
Bauji has an eiphany one day and he must follow it because suddenly he has realised why he was born. He must follow his own truth and his own truth will only be that which he has experienced. Soon, the meaning of his entire life changes. He leaves his job as a travel agent because he hasn’t seen any of the places he regularly recommends and hence it is a false existence, something he cannot allow in his life anymore. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth”, Bauji could easily have been Thoreau. Or Maya Angelou who when asked what is right simply said, “Truth is.” His loving wife and daughter indulge him, his younger brother, tired of hauling material responsibilities leaves him, his loyal fans follow him blindly and we have a picture of life as we all have seen unfolding in our own worlds.
Creating a world to touch and feel
Every film is rooted in its own ideology and born of it, whether it likes it or not, whether it is conscious of it or not. Rajat Kapoor’s cinema seeks to question consciously and that is the joy of watching his films. In Mixed Doubles he questioned the idea of monogamous relationships, in Mithya and Fatso identity and truth, in Ankhon Dekhi truth again. There is something very honest, at an intrinsic level, in his searching and nudging set beliefs. That draws you in and makes you take it seriously, keen to know if the journeys of his characters will somehow make your own easier and enlightened.
It does but not in the philosophical proddings. It does in the earthy, rustic (and inspired) casting of Sanjay Mishra, Seema Pahwa and others. It does in the lovely, early morning winter mist-like songs written by Varun Grover used beautifully. It does in the very common-sounding but carefully written dialogues. It does in the loving relationships we see functioning in what we see as a very average, very ordinary family. We smile when we see Seema Pahwa’s Amma, nagging but warm and soft-hearted wife and mother because we know her, maybe in our own mothers, wives, mother-in-laws, aunts, grandmothers or neighbours. Even if we don’t she seems familiar. Because she is real. There is no artifice in her character or her performance and she appeals to us in a way no hot babe or heartthrob can aspire to. Like most women do, she forms the spine of the family, keeping it together emotionally yet invisibly. (If you disagree, imagine the family without Bauji. Then imagine the family without her). Getting her character right (and getting the brilliant Seema Pahwa to play it) is the first solid brick Rajat Kapoor lays in creating a world we cannot help but fall in love with.
As we gently land into the world we are welcomed by a ruckus over the inappropriateness of the friendship the daughter of the house has with a boy. Bauji protects her as Amma lashes at her. We then see Bauji’s younger brother Rishi (a terribly miscast Rajat Kapoor) step in to play the peace-making voice of sense role with a sigh; a role he has probably been playing for a long time now and is weary of. There is also the no-good younger son (a character that spirals the story even more out of focus in the second half) whom Bauji doesn’t know what to do with and we see that the irregularities of the family are as regular and middle-class as they can get. There is daily bickering, daily endearing moments, gentle warmth and regular disappointments as ordinary yet interesting for it, as the patchwork quilt the family cosily shrouds themselves in, in the cold nights of this North Indian town.
“The truth is out there!”
Bauji would like to believe so but there is a strong corollary to that. Only that truth is truth that is true to your experience. And hence begins a journey of a family dragged into this search of truth by the man of the house who now begins to appear a little senile to our eyes shrouded by practical concerns. We, as an audience become the family and Bauji the lone crusader trying to put out what he has discovered.
I tripped out on the promise of the premise completely.
“In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” ― George Orwell
Truth does revolutionise Bauji’s life. The search for truth comes with a price, from Gandhi to Satyapriya, they all knew it. The price Bauji pays is to see his joint family breaking up. Rishi chooses to live separately with his family and the graceful Bauji lets him be. We sense there is a parallel search for one’s own truth unfolding elsewhere. Practical and material concerns do not provide us the middle-class luxury to indulge in fancy philosophical journeys; no, that’s for the elite. And hence the entire family rises up in arms against Bauji’s new avatar. Philosophy is costly but we forget that in merely surviving we let go of living. Subtly deceiving ourselves that this is what life is meant to be after all. For Bauji, surviving suddenly becomes an ugly word.
Sadly, his discovery does not become an expansive, life-affirming philosophical journey or a guiding light. Neither does it elevate itself to a deep, cinematic exploration of its theme. Like Matrix did for example.
Instead, we have a situation with little sub-text to the real theme, of his younger brother’s separation from the joint family. Animosity grows between the brothers, one that is treated gently and with love but does it contribute anything to the central conceit of the film? Yes, the younger brother is following his own truth but the film seems to be saying little about his journey, treating it with realist-humanist sympathy alone with no philosophical implications. A mere by-product of the mess Bauji has invited in his life by choosing what he has. That a sub-plot that crucial has little bearing to the theme than being a mere outcome seemed to me to be disservice to everyone included.
“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” ― Winston Churchill
The tender-hearted Bauji suddenly becomes a braveheart in our eyes because he finds in himself the courage to face the truth he has found. It isn’t easy, such conviction, but neither is it difficult because when you have an epiphany, when the clouds clear for that insoluble moment of time and the sun shines brighter than it ever has, all shadows fall away, and the truth stands alone, refusing to be blind-sided, refusing to be hidden by rationalisations yet again. With such truth such courage comes as default. One has no other way. Yet, Bauji’s truth does not become ours nor egg us to seek ours. It gets lost in the whimsy of card-playing popularity, fan-following herds, and placard-holding eccentricities. None of which are organic or dynamic. They remain interesting plot points, the ‘coulds’ one writes on the margins of a script when at crossroads of plot development.
It’s almost like Rajat Kapoor himself stumbled over the truth, picked himself up and hurried off as if nothing happened.
And that killed the film for me. A theme as rich as that I found aimlessly tossed around, especially one with a very honest intent and one that is completely devoid of posturing. I know what became of Bauji but was it an organic growth or a cop-out? To me it seemed like the latter. Not that I know, but the alleys of truth must be convoluting, without easy answers, especially since so many of us know so little about it. The end of Bauji’s search seemed very easy. And his journey very unmindful as well. For a man who has found the reason of his existence, one which has been turned 360 degrees, he seemed to be acting more from whim than a focussed intent. Because whim is superficial but intent helps you delve deeper. If Bauji’s character had truly delved deeper he wouldn’t be going on trips to the zoo very late in the second half to establish a point he had painstakingly established very early on. If his character hadn’t taken an eccentric turn he wouldn’t suddenly become the lucky charm of a small-time Mafioso. His character seemed to be truly seeking and struggling, breaking free and revolutionising all that we know of an average man’s search for truth (notice the paradox in the statement) when he took to standing on the chowk holding confounding placards embarrassing his family. But suddenly, there was no movement in this journey. And a brilliant plot point became a mere set piece contributing nothing to anything.
“The more I see, the less I know for sure.” ― John Lennon
Is this why Bauji ends up the way he does? We don’t know, however we are led to believe that he has come to a fructifying end to his journey. With the end as he chooses for Bauji, Rajat Kapoor seems to want to put an existential spin in the narrative which is as exciting a thought as his original theme. But there are no questions raised before we are led to this resolution. Nor is there an indication of a journey that seeks a proper close. The end comes and goes, just like Bauji’s epiphany, leaving us cold when it should have ideally left us shivering with goose bumps. Maybe inches closer to our own spiritual or intellectual thirst. That is because we did not see enough. Deep enough. Of Bauji and his thirst, his angst of marrying his new reality with his old, or a trajectory that led to his resolution that seemed to satisfy him. The film is linear and not episodic, however treating his journey as episodic fails the entire structure of the film and the audience, who by the middle are expecting more. Not answers, no one has them nor they can give anyone (Your truth is your own, remember?). Nor was it the intent of the film to provide ready ones. It was the experience of the search, the pain, angst, growth, questions, answers, trials and peace. Logically, all of this exists in the film but tattered and scattered, making little sense, not feeding off each other as it should and hence coming across as an under-played game of TT where no one wins.
Aldous Huxley once wrote, “Experience isn’t what happens to a man, it’s what a man does with what happens to him.”
I think that just about sums up, at many levels, what I feel about the film.