This is one of the few movies where I enjoy Irrfan, but I don’t mind it when he isn’t onscreen either. It’s such a good film with such good performances all around, for once the movie lives up to Irrfan.
Shoojit Sircar has had a very odd career. He started with Yahaan, your standard Kashmir war romance type thing. And then after a gap of 7 years, he was given a second change with Vicky Donor, a very not standard rambling story of a man who donated sperm to a fertility clinic, produced by John Abraham and featuring Ayushmann Khurranna in his film debut. He followed that up with Madras Cafe, produced by and starring John Abraham in a rambling risky political story about Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. It got decent critical reviews, but didn’t do well at the box office. And then there was this movie. Which was not something anyone had seen before.
For a film industry and a culture which is so family based, there are really not that many family stories coming out of Hindi cinema. There’s loads of melodramas with families shouting at each other and causing stress and so on, but those aren’t really stories about families, those are stories about family drama, about families ceasing to function. We get about 15 minutes of “normal” family life, and then the drama hits.
This film is all the normal life, the regular day to day part of being a family. I can’t think of anything equivalent in Hindi film, I have to look at Malayalam and Tamil to find it. Jacobinte Swarigam, Aval Oru Thodharkadai, those are the movies that spring to mind as doing something similar. But Hindi films, and Hindi actors, tend to be so hyper-real that a regular story isn’t going to cut it.
I can think of movies that were regular life kind of stories, from the parallel cinema mostly. Mausam, Anubhav, anything Hrishikesh Mukherjee. But they weren’t usually about nothing. Anand was about life and death, Mausam was about a family rocked to its foundations, Anubhav was about a husband and wife finding their way back to each other. This is a rare movie that is truly about nothing. A father and daughter take a trip, that’s it. There is no central conflict, no build to it. At least, no more than there is conflict and build in any story about a family.
And that puts the weight onto the actors. If you look at Sircar’s career as a whole, it is the films with the strong actors that end up working. Ayushmann in Vicky Donor was a real find, John Abraham and Nargis in Madras Cafe just couldn’t make it work, October stumbled with Varun Dhawan. But this movie has a perfect cast. Amitabh throws himself into a very different kind of role than he had attempted before, but one that let him showboat and use his natural ability to be the center of attention to support it. He manages to make a character who is fun to watch without ever stooping to being charming. Irrfan was predictably entertaining and perfectly lowkey. And then Deepika, the real star.
It’s a very well-written role, and Dips is supported by a great cast (including Moushumi Chatterjee, popping in and out as a character so fun that it feels like they expanded her role just to get more of her), but ultimately it is a test of Dips herself and she rises to it. This is what Varun tried for and failed in October, the charm, the ease, the hints of depth, the charisma, it just wasn’t quite there. In this, Deepika doesn’t soften her character’s hard edges, but she also doesn’t resist the urge to make her charming when she needs to. It’s a role that seems like it would require more of an art actress, perhaps an older actress. But it works so much better with this mainstream pretty charismatic star. We can see why she is forgiven so much, why people are drawn to her, because she has the Deepika prettiness, and the Deepika irresistible smile, and the Deepika casual grace and confidence in how she moves. A woman whose outer surface reveals an inner softness that her personality obscures. And a woman that we can easily watch, and enjoy watching, for hours of hours of screen time.
There’s also the style of the film. Like Sircar’s other films, it is filmed like we are just watching these people. No fancy lighting, no fancy camera angles, straightforward, non-judgmental. But not showing everything, letting us put our clues together to figure it out. Deepika’s booty call, Irrfan’s problems with his family, it’s all left for us to figure out for ourselves, not spelled out. That’s what keeps the film going, not a lot of things happen or change, but the audience is drawn in anyway by the small things we keep learning about these people.
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There is truly not much to this plot. Deepika lives in Delhi with her widowed retired father Amitabh Bachchan. She is an architect and is having a casual relationship with her business partner. She fights with her driver every morning and has to meet with the owner of the taxi company (Irrfan Khan) about it. Then Amitabh has a health scare and declares he wants to visit the old family home in Calcutta before anything else happens. They decide to drive as it is easier for him. The taxi driver doesn’t show up, so Irrfan is stuck driving them himself. He drives them for two days, then stays another day in the home in Calcutta. And then Amitabh dies, peacefully in his sleep. Deepika holds his funeral and thinks about her life moving forward. She and Irrfan have coffee together, he gently teases her about her father, and then we see them peacefully playing badminton together in the courtyard of her house as she calls the sign maker to get the name of the house changed to be named after Amitabh.
That doesn’t really sound like a plot, does it? The closest it comes to being a plot is the potential romance between Irrfan and Deepika. And sure, that’s there. He is clearly struck by her beauty when he first meets her, but put off by her rudeness. And then he notices and is intrigued by the dedicated way she takes care of and puts up with Amitabh. And she slowly lets him see more and more of herself, revealing her true character to him in a way most people don’t get to see. And then the end is open, they are together but we don’t know how much they are together.
But it’s not a movie about Irrfan and Deepika, not really. It’s a movie about Deepika and Amitabh, and there is no resolution there. There is no central conflict, no beginning and no end, because that is what family is like. It is the people in your life who are always there, who have no ending and no beginning, that is what makes them family.
This is the story of a family re-aligning itself. Deepika and Amitabh were always a family. But as Amitabh ages, Deepika is facing a life alone, with no one in it who is truly “hers”. Irrfan appears and, slowly, works his way in past her reserve, becomes the solution to a problem she hadn’t fully articulated. The journey to Calcutta is a journey into Deepika’s past with questions about her future, the theme comes up again and again of who she will be and who will be there for her after Amitabh goes. And there is Irrfan, and there is her partner/lover. And there is her mother’s sister and their Delhi friends, and her aunt and uncle in Calcutta. What will last?
I should back up and talk a little about Deepika’s character and Amitabh’s and how they are related. Deepika is a mass of contradictions. Incapable of holding her tongue, terribly rude and fearless in work settings, but also confident and sure of herself and her talent (we see her partner both beg her to be nice to the clients, and beg her to come back to the office because he can’t handle the project). At home she snaps at Amitabh and he snaps right back. But when the rest of the family descend, when she is out on a date with an old friend, when she is at a party, she becomes suddenly insecure and unsure of herself.
This is how Amitabh raised her and he is proud of what he did. He taught her not to have “low IQ”, not to get married, not to do anything for anyone else, to be selfish and be all that she could be. He made her into a confident difficult talented successful woman. And also a woman who doesn’t quite know how to be a “woman”, how to make small talk on dates, how to insert herself into the conversation in a social situation, you can easily picture Amitabh teaching a little girl to never back down, to never talk about meaningless things, and so on and so forth. Essentially, he made her into his own image. But a confident older man can get away with things that a young woman cannot, can expect the world to arrange itself around him and then watch it happen. Young woman, they have to figure out a way to arrange themselves around the world.
And then there’s Amitabh. He doesn’t feel like the usual retired old man. The way he talks, like he is used to being listened to, and the way people talk about him, Moushami casually introducing him at a party as “Bhaskor” as though it is a name to conjure with. We learn he had a good office job, but their house feels like more than that, the art on the walls and the kind of conversations they have and friends they have, it feels like Amitabh must have been a minor local artist, a painter or a poet or something more than just an office worker. Now he may be just an old man, but he remembers what he once was, and Deepika does too. She puts up with a lot, and she listens and does what he asks, not just because he is her father but because she still respects him and wants to gain his respect in return.
It’s an odd but familiar relationship. If you remove all the talk about Satyajit Ray and premarital sex with family approval and all the rest of it, you are left with a child who is trying to gain their parent’s approval before it is too late, and a parent who feels themselves fading away and is trying to enforce their strength one last time. And underneath it, is the solid love that holds it all up.
That’s what makes Deepika’s performance and character so interesting. She is a rude frazzled irritable woman, but underneath is a solid core of love. And a surprisingly traditional core. She takes a blessing from her grandparents’ (?) pictures every time she leaves the house. She just wants to get married, even if it is to some boring guy she never even liked in college. And she will sacrifice her life for her parents, just like a good child is supposed to do. Only, no one can see that side of her because they are distracted by her casual rudeness, the brittle shell she puts on for the world.
Irrfan is truly a secondary character, not the “hero” in the traditional sense, but he does get a bit of a backstory. And that backstory is carefully constructed to be the compliment to Deepika’s. Deepika is a difficult person with a difficult father and a difficult family that hide a deeply traditional and sacrificial core. Irrfan is the opposite, a mother and a sister who are charmers and grifters, terrible at the heart. We only get a glimpse of them, enough to learn that his sister stole jewelry from her in-laws and ran away with it and now is holding them up for more money before she will go back with her son. Their mother encourages this behavior and the two of them are living off of Irrfan’s hard work at the taxi company his father started. Irrfan himself, he has fallen so far below the class level of Deepika that he has no expectations of her. He is smart and he has the education, not like the man she goes on the date with that she dismisses as not even knowing Satyajit Ray. He is a civil engineer by education, but after a failure of his first overseas job, he is trapped working at his father’s taxi company. While the men who are her equals may see her as beneath them, she may feel uncomfortable with them, Irrfan is different. A smart educated man who can sneak in past her defenses. And who knows what a truly heartless woman looks like and can rescue the value of one like Deepika whose hard exterior hides a big heart.
Deepika’s hard exterior is beginning to shake and break as Amitabh gets sicker and sicker. There is the day to day irritation, but then there are the moments of gently stroking his arm, of sitting up with him. And the moments when she has no other choice but to reveal a weakness to those around her. Letting Irrfan let her sleep in the car. Revealing to her paternal aunt (who had just secretly insulted her as heartless) that she considers her a second mother. She is still a strong difficult woman, that will never change, but she can’t keep herself quite so emotionally closed off as she used to.
Ultimately this story is about the process of death. Amitabh is shutting down his life, doing an emotional inventory, giving advice to his daughter and making peace with his family and visiting his past. And Deepika is thinking about her future, preparing herself to be without Amitabh one way or another, at first by clumsily trying for a romance, and then by a more serious reflection on her own past and what she wants for the future and a discovery of who she is inside. She and Irrfan joke about her being a 50 year old woman taking care of a 90 year old man, but inside they both know that won’t be happening, more likely she will be a 50 year old woman still struggling to build a life after spending her first 30 years taking care of her father. She has to move on, and she does. She makes a connection with Irrfan, with her paternal family, she finds a way to make her peace with Amitabh and deliver a nice eulogy. And she receives and understands his message from beyond the grave, that he fears her business partner/lover has constipation as well. Which, in the terms she understands, means that he will never be the kind of emotionally open person she needs, Amitabh taught her that motion comes with emotion. She lets go of him and moves on to the man who is open, who is emotional, who can match her in ever way. Amitabh is dead, but the house is named in his honor and her life moves on with his memory.