I’m back! For my full SPOILERS review, after the very very early Monday morning No Spoilers review. And I’m excited because there is a lot to talk about once I am allowed to spoil things!
Whole plot in one paragraph:
Shanthi is the head of a changing family. Her husband Lal is home after spending years working in Kuwait away from the rest of the family. Her father-in-law has dementia and needs constant care. Her oldest Srinda Arhaan is married with a small child. The middle child, Nivin, is working in London. And the youngest Ahaana Krishna is still living at home but increasingly distant, always on her phone or computer. And then one day Shanthi finds a lump in her breast. She tells her husband Lal, and together they decide to see a doctor. She asks her son to come home without telling him why. Shanthi and Lal agree to a treatment plan, and then prepare themselves to tell the family. The family rallies together without really knowing what to expect. Nivin stays back, Srinda moves home for a few months. Ahaana slowly manages to find a way to connect with her mother again. A home nurse is hired to care for the grandfather. While taking her in for chemo, Nivin meets the daughter of another cancer patient and they start a small romance. Ahaana gets engaged, with full family support, to her no-longer-secret boyfriend. Shanthi goes through the standard beats of treatment, the first chemo which isn’t too bad, the second and third which are much worse, the hair falling out and finally shaved off, and then the moment of danger when her fever spikes and she is rushed to the hospital. That same night, the grandfather dies. A few months later, Nivin proposes to his girlfriend and then the family leaves for a holiday together. While they are gone, the doctor calls them to confirm that the tests have come back and Shanthi is cancer free. Happy Ending!
Just to get this out of the way, I literally know so many breast cancer survivors that I cannot remember them all. There was a while in my childhood that it felt like every 4th woman we knew had breast cancer. I also know 4 women who did not survive it.
Although, the trick with cancer is when you decide you “survived” it. A close family friend died a few months back. This was, I think, her 3rd recurrence of cancer. She got it the first time over 20 years ago when her children (and me, I literally cannot remember before she had cancer) were very young. And then again when they (and I) were teenagers. She lived long enough to see both her sons grown and settled in life and happy. And long enough to read my book, one of the last conversations she had with my mother was to tell her how wonderful it was and how proud she was of me. That was nice. The point is, it was cancer which killed her, but she was given an extra 25 years of life more than she was supposed to have.
I could go through all the other breast cancer stories I know, some of them with “happy” endings, some of them pretty terribly horribly tragic. But the thing is, I know these stories. Both from real life, and from popular culture, it’s kind of an everyday thing. You get diagnosed, you get surgery, you go through chemo or radiation, you go on with life. And there’s certain common sense parts of it, if you find a lump, you go the doctor immediately, you don’t wait around. You start treatment immediately too, no waiting until you feel “ready”. And this movie didn’t exactly treat it like that.
I’m not faulting the film, I am faulting myself. I didn’t realize that my perspective is unique to my experiences. Not just with cancer, but the whole way of looking at the world that is a result of my upbringing, the society I live in, and so on and so on. This wasn’t the point of the film, it wasn’t made for me, but it was a nice benefit to force myself into a different mindset, where cancer and cancer treatment are mysterious and scary, doctors can’t be trusted and may not be the first choice in response to illness, and so on and so on.
What the film does wonderfully is show that this experience is not “normal” for these characters, is not something they have ever heard about before either from popular culture or someone they know. But that it is “normal” in reality, that it is a hidden thing going on everyday, the doctors and nurses and everyone else who deals with it isn’t afraid or even excited. There is a disconnect between the reality of what it means to have cancer today, and the expectation of it all.
This is a bit of a dangerous disconnect in various ways. On the one hand, the idea that cancer is fatal, that we need a “cure”, is what can scare patients away, can make them (as we see in this film) less willing to go to the doctor and explore options. And on the other hand, it can also leave to misuse of funds. Susan G Komen for the Cure is mentioned in this film, Shanthi goes to their website. And I feel obligated to point out that they might not be the best breast cancer charity to give your money to. 20.9% of their funding goes to cancer research. 39.1% to “public health education”. Health screening services get 13%. And actual treatment of patients, only 5%. 10% goes to fundraising, 11% to administrative. (here is a link to an article about other charities that you might better want to give funds to)
The thing is, breast cancer IS curable. If it is diagnosed earlier, which is why free and widely available mammograms are vital, and if it is treated promptly, which is why funding for this very very expensive treatment is needed. I’m not saying everyone will be cured or it isn’t a terrible disease, or even that there doesn’t need to be better treatment. But the chase for a “cure” is ignoring all the treatments already there, and all the people who desperately need those treatments and may not be able to get them.
That’s not what this film is about, the doublespeak and obfuscation that is the American healthcare system and charitable foundations. It’s about the patient side of things, the impression that there is no “cure” for cancer, so there’s no point in even doing anything. That’s where these characters start. And the film treats it as, rightly, humorous. That Shanthi would tell her husband and then try to forget about it while he spun out attempting to understand what was happening. That he would resist even talking to a doctor, until he finally does and is treated with some surprise that he would even hesitate. And that the whole family, and then all their friends and wider family, would immediately assume this is a death sentence, would offer medical advice so useless as to be humorous, would not be willing to listen to actual information and would prefer to instead assume the worst.
What the film absolutely nails is that this family has no idea what they are getting in to, not at first, and there is no one moment when it dawns on them, it is a long slow change. And also that all the stresses and troubles already there don’t magically go away just because of a diagnosis. Instead, the change into new stresses and troubles.
This is a family that had hard times before this, different hard times. They are already dealing with a grandfather with dementia. There is mention of how Lal working overseas for so many years took a toll on his relationships with his children, especially his youngest. The son-in-law is in an odd position in the family, a love marriage that Lal and Shanthi supported and fought for, but still a son-in-law, not really “one of us”. Nivin ran off to London after a love affair went bad some years ago and doesn’t come home enough. And the youngest is in the middle of her own love affair, kept secret from her parents. Finally, we learn late in the film that they also survived the Kuwait war back in the 90s. Nivin and Srinda were children, Ahaana was just a baby, Lal separated from the rest of the family and Shanthi had to get them home to India all by herself. That, we can fill in, is why Lal was in Kuwait while they were in India for much of Ahaana’s childhood. Why he feels closer to the two older children than to the youngest. Why the two older children are closer to their mother as well.
None of these strains are that dreadful, it is just life, every family has things like this. But then something dramatic happens and it all comes to the surface. What this film does very very well is show how the existing cracks morph when given this new weight. Ahaana is the character I find most interesting. A thoughtless young woman who spends all her time on her phone and asks her mother to do her ironing. But we can also see that this didn’t come from nowhere, she is the youngest, there is a special bond Nivin and Srinda share as the two oldest, a special bond Nivin has with his parents as the only son, and a special bond Srinda has with them as the oldest child. And where does that leave Ahaana?
She would have grown up a little, Lal would have settled more into his retirement and life at home, Nivin would have come back eventually and the family shifted again, but instead all of that has to happen very fast because Shanthi needs them all to be there for her. But on the other hand, Ahaana is the one who knows Shanthi least and vice versa, and that can be a strength. She is the one who Shanthi can say “I am losing my hair” to and ask her to help her shave her head, talk about this thing which would be a devastating loss for the other family members who have a deeper connection. And Ahaana can put together a fake engagement to make Shanthi happy without Shanthi ever realizing it is fake. Well, “fake”.
Late in the film, Shanthi charges Nivin with finding out who Ahaana’s boyfriend is and arranging their marriage, because she wants to see her married. Nivin meets them, Ahaana’s boyfriend is as confident and secure as she is, points out that they are in love and he knows her better than anyone, and Nivin has no place to come between. But they also say they don’t want to be married, not yet. They are both happy to wait, if only her family won’t pressure them. And so instead they have a big engagement, guests and food and pictures and fancy clothes. Something like a wedding, but not a wedding. And with no wedding planned any time soon. One of her other children, Nivin or Srinda, Shanthi might have been able to see through it, to see that this was done for her benefit and wasn’t something that was really making them happy. But Ahaana, she has the ability to lie to her.
Srinda is the next most interesting child. Huh. Nivin produced this movie, and he has the least interesting character! Overall it is the women of this film who really shine, Ahaana and Srinda and Shanthi. Nivin and Lal are just there to follow behind and help. Oh right, Srinda’s character! We get bits and pieces about how she had a love marriage, her then-boyfriend went to Lal to ask for his help and Lal was fully supportive, she seems to have possibly married young and thrown herself fully into her role as wife and mother. And then commits just as fully to moving in with her parents and taking care of her mother during recovery. There is a picture of a woman who has always taken on the responsibilities for the family, been the one who takes care of things, wanted to move out and take on her own family, but is happy to move back when needed back home. And she married a man like her father, kind and loving, but a little weak, needs someone to take care of him.
Shanthi and Lal though, they are the heart of the film. Nivin has his little romance, that is fine, a nice distraction and a reminder that life goes on, and a reminder that there are other families dealing with this same thing. But we don’t care about that nearly as much as we do about Shanthi and Lal. They are there, right from the beginning to the end. She tells him her worries almost immediately, in the private space of their bedroom at night. And at the end of the film, in a beautiful visual metaphor, they are literally in “the same boat”. The family is on vacation, the children and grandchild are in one boat on a lake, Lal and Shanthi are in the other right next to it. But separated, the two of them are something special that is different from what the others have.
And this is without changing them into different people than the ones we first meet. Shanthi can’t show her soft side easily, not even to Lal. Lal is too cowardly to take her to chemo. But that doesn’t matter, because ultimately he is the one in bed with her when she wakes up sick in the middle of the night, he is the one who remembers her long hair from when she was a young woman, he is the one that has built a life with her for all these years while she put up with him.
None of them change. Nivin is still lazy and chubby, Srinda is still bossy, Ahaana is still rude and uncommunicative. Lal is still a coward and quick to worry. But within their restrictions, they do what they can. There is one scene early on with Shanthi snapping at Nivin to do his own laundry. And then for the rest of the film we see Nivin occasionally entering or exiting scenes carrying laundry. Not in a tidy or efficient way, he isn’t going to be perfect at it, but he will take over that household task now that he has to. We see the family switch from eating home cooked meals to eating pizza. They aren’t going to learn how to cook, but they are going to find a way so that Shanthi doesn’t have to cook. We see them vacuuming, helping to take care of grandfather, doing the bare minimum of what Shanthi used to do, but doing it. And without complaining.
I should say, the style of the film isn’t nothing. First time director and he does a very very good job. It’s done mostly in a straightforward manner, but there are occasional moments that made me sit up and take notice. Late in the film, Nivin and his girlfriend kiss. We don’t see it, we see them standing together, her reaching for him, him backing away embarrassed, and then backing right off the screen while she smiles and follows him. And then two seconds later drags him back on screen, both of them smiling, it is clear they kissed off camera. The one that really stood out is the family party where they decide to tell the extended family. We see the aftermath, every one of our main characters trapped in their own terrible conversations with unwanted sympathy, unwanted advice, all the terrible stuff well-meaning people do who are on the outside of these situations. They are scattered all over the house, the camera follows them, and gives a slight sense of distortion of the sound and the light as they finally excuse themselves and walk away, giving us that same slightly overcome feeling they are having while listening. What makes it trickier is that it takes a second to realize each family member is separately going to the same place, the kitchen. The sequence goes from each of them in conversation, standing and walking away with distortion, camera moving throughout the house to find each in turn, and then moving down the hall and ending in the kitchen to show them all together. Very very well done, and probably fairly complicated to execute.
But what makes the movie for me, drives away the slight sense of superficiality, is the very ending. We’ve had this whole film of the family being presented in a determinedly humorous way, every moment of emotion driven out with a little touch of black humor, a moment that seemed to want the audience to say “aren’t they clever?” But at the end, finally, we get sincere emotion. After they get the phone call and have their happy ending, Nivin’s voice over (I think it was Nivin, maybe it was Lal) saying that sometimes people ask them if they ever cried, they were always smiling and confident, didn’t they cry? And Nivin says, of course they cried. And we see each character in turn crying, and the final piece of the puzzle falls into place for how they are and how this family is. Nivin, the one who seems so lazy and weak, crying and immediately pulling himself together when he hears his mother call for him. The son-in-law, who always makes big statements of affection for his in-laws but we aren’t sure if he means it, crying along with his wife. Not because she is crying, they are sitting next to each other but he is not comforting her, he is crying for himself and the love he truly feels for his mother-in-law. Ahaana, the emotionless cool youngest daughter, sobbing hysterically with her face hidden in a pillow. And Lal, the funny husband he seems like he has to lean on his wife, crying at night hiding in the car after his wife is asleep because he knows she is leaning on him. The rest of the film, that’s the outside story, the strength they put on for society, the funny stories you tell over people, but the inside story, that’s something that they hid away, and the film hid away, until the very end. Because you have to see them both together, you have to see the camouflage before you see the real pain or else the real pain has no meaning. If we’d started the film with the crying, with the nobility of these characters, I wouldn’t have believed it. I needed to see the grinding every day willingness to put in the time and do the work before I believed in the tears. Which, really is what cancer, or any sickness, is all about. Not just the people who feel bad for you, but the people who step up and try to help you.