At one point, R. Balki planned an autumnal love story with Amitabh Bachchan and Sridevi on the lines of The Bridges Of Madison County about two aging people discovering love long after the ‘permissible age’.
Balki abandoned the idea for later. But then Sridevi left us before Balki could get down to making the film about love when mortality seems a threat.
Hindi cinema shies away from making films on the elderly. No market, they say. It takes an artiste with vision and stature to break this glass ceiling and peep into the world of the aged.
In that simple and lucid Bengali film “Shonar Pahar”, that understated actor-turned-director Parambrata Chattopadhyay does a brilliant job of bringing to us a film that is so heartwarming and gentle it almost feels like we’re floating effortlessly in the air. The pulls and pressures of life never weigh down the storytelling.
“Shonar Pahar” is a view from the highest peak of the mountain where every emotion seems to acquire the clarity of a dream seen early in the morning. Set in Kolkata, the film essentially scopes the bond between a cantankerous, lonely, embittered but dignified woman and a 7-year old boy whose wisdom pervades the film in unfiltered showers of splendor and sublimity.
Tanuja, who makes a comeback in “Shonar Pahar is one of those super-talented septuagenerians of Indian cinema who are sitting at home wondering why no roles are written for them in our cinema. The one good thing about legenadry actresses Meena Kumari, Nargis, Madhubala, Geeta Bali, Smita Patil and Tanuja’s elder sister Nutan dying young is that they were spared the ignominy of being neglected by a youth-obsessed film industry.
Tanuja in “Shonar Pahar” is the perfect fit as Upama, a woman who retains her sense of pride and dignity in spite of being abandoned by her son. Into Upama’s lonely existence — she has only a bustling sanctimonious maid for company — hiphops the 7-year old wise little orphan Bitlu (newcomer Srijato Bandhopadyay) who is everything the old abandoned woman thinks she doesn’t need at this stage of her life. Precocious, inquisitive, restless and affectionate, Bitlu effortlessly fills that emotional vacuum in Upama’s life.
The scenes building the bonding between these two unlikely friends — their shared lunch at a luxury hotel is a treat — is done up in life’s most precious colours. We don’t feel any manipulative hands behind the volume of contagious emotions created between the two.
Their joyous togetherness and their shared time — when the old woman reads self-written stories to the attentive responsive child and the way the child effortlessly takes over the authoritarian matriarch’s life, are all put forward with a gently persuasive nudge that tilts us completely in favour of the film’s simple uncluttered narrative.
Watching Tanuja back on the screen after so long made me very melancholic. Her tightly-controlled emotional ownership of her character is exemplary. She brings so much gravitas and simmering discontent to the surface without allowing the inherently-schmaltzy theme to bubble over with emotions.
There is so much that Parambrata Chattopadhyay says about autumnal betrayals and disappointments, about old age, loneliness, ungrateful children and difficult parents that there is only applause and praise to be apportioned to the film.
Then there is the legendary 83-year old Soumitra Chatterjee who makes a sporting guest appearance as Tanuja’s old admirer. There is history in their reunion. The film could easily have become weighed down by its ideas on the disintegrating quality of urban existence. Instead, it celebrates the spirit of solitude, finds laughter and warmth in the cold climate of contemporary self absorption.
Thank God Tanuja got at least one opportunity to prove her mettle. Her legendary seniors and contemporaries like Waheeda Rehman, Asha Parekh, Raakhee Gulzar, Hema Malini, Jaya Bachchan and Sharmila Tagore are sitting at home waiting for a roles. Even the autumnal male actors are sailing in the same boat. Only Amitabh Bachchan, and to some extent Shabana Azmi, are getting the work they deserve. The rest, stay in peace.
(Subhash K Jha can be contacted at [email protected])