Film: “Once Again”; Director: Kanwal Sethi; Cast: Shefali Shah, Neeraj Kabi and Rasika Dugal, Rating: ****
After watching Netflix’s two back-to-black — and I do mean black, dark, dingy, murky, depressing — crime dramas that had a lot in common besides the omnipresent Radhika Apte, what an undisguised blessing it is to see a film that pervades your senses with a sense of exhilaration and with the aromas of food and feelings that can only be experienced in Mumbai, the city that never sleeps even as the sleepless citizens seek some assurance that there is peace and harmony beyond the grind of the hub-hub.
Two such restless souls are film actor Amar Kumar (Neeraj Kabi) and single mother and restaurateur Tara Shetty (Shefali Shah), both played by such magnificent actors that we can’t see the acting at all. They are lonely… Oh gosh, yes, they are lonely as hell! It’s in their eyes. The longing, the need to find that comforting cuddle in the suffocating puddle of life.
“Once Again” is a pre-autumnal love story set in the heart of “heartless” Mumbai where everyone is so busy living their lives, they forget their dreams. Tara cooks Amar’s meals. Eating her culinary creations are the highlight of his day. He savours the morsels like little portions of nectar dropped into his mouth from heaven.
The couple hardly gets the time to go past pleasantries to explore their growing relationship. He breaks protocol and arrives at her restaurant’s doorstep with a handful of aromatic flowers, freshly plucked it would seem, though bought from a shop. The moment he sets his eyes on her, Amar, without any trace of drama or flourish, comments on how beautiful Tara is.
There are no cascading violins. Only the distractingly reassuring noises of daily bustle captured with such a fine ear for the normal and the routine. A big shout out for the sound design and the cinematography, which pulls no punches.
The three heroes of the film — Shefali Shah, Neeraj Kabi and Mumbai (in no particular order) — are captured with a casual grace that leaves no space for adornments and brush-ups.
As Amar and Tara’s relationship finds breathing space in the suffocating environment of the humdrum, the romance reminded me… No, not of Ritesh Batra’s wee overrated “The Lunchbox” (just because she cooks, he eats and they don’t meet for a while), but Guru Dutt’s “Kagaz Ke Phool”.
I almost expected the couple to be caught in the glare of arclights to the aching sound of “Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam”.
Alas, there are other ‘haseen sitam’ (beautiful offences) that await this film.
In the second movement, the narrative simply falls apart under the weight of conventions — the ones that are imposed on the widowed mother’s growing affection for the film star, and then those conventions that director Kanwal Sethi thrusts on the film: the disapproving son (played by the talented Priyanshu Painyuli who was so good in the title role of “Bhavesh Joshi Superhero”), his impending wedding and the moral sanctions therein.
By the time Tara’s son’s mother-in-law sniggers, “So are we having two weddings in the family?”, the cringe benefits are up for keeps.
The end-game where the director plays a they-are-together-they-are-not mind game, is not just a sighing compromise. It is also not clear whether the Tara-Amar relationship has a future.
This is a pity, really. Because “Once Again” raises a lot of hope in us. Its hopeful, restrained and mature attitude towards mid-life romance, bolstered by solid central performances, gives us a reason to believe that Indian cinema is going past puberty.
Just then, the film faces a mid-life crisis of its own.