The main draw of Listen… Amaya is the fact that it brings back together two actors who’ve given us some of the tenderest, most identifiable romantic couplings in the history of Hindi filmdom: Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval. In a cinematic universe so dominated by grand gesture and loving excess, it seems almost wondrous that they managed to carve out a space for the middle class romantic encounter, transforming the everyday into quiet on-screen magic.
In a lovely little scene from Sachin Kundalkar’s otherwise curiously confused Aiyyaa, Rani Mukherjee’s Meenakshi shocks her prospective husband Madhav (Subodh Bhave) by telling him that she’s never heard of the Deepti Naval-Farooque Shaikh pairing, leading him to break into a spontaneous rendition of Jagjit Singh’s ‘Tumko dekha toh yeh khayaal aaya’ from Saath-Saath. Seeing Madhav so overcome, Meenakshi asks what was special about them. Nothing special, replies Madhav – that was the point – that they were so normal, so un-made-up, so utterly un-filmi. The movie-mad Meenakshi, who spends her technicolour daydreams dancing her way through Sridevi-Madhuri-Juhi hits, is genuinely flummoxed. If you wanted to watch regular people, she muses, why would you go watch a film?
No-one who has ever actually watched Saath-Saath, though, is likely to ask that question. A marvelously affecting example of the Naval-Shaikh romantic pairing, Raman Kumar’s film contains several classic Hindi movie elements – the new girl in college; the radical poet-writer-hero; the poor boy-rich girl romance; the rich parents opposed to the relationship – but it uses them to craft a narrative that is perhaps unique in our cinema. Because the crisis in the film – our sense of impending tragedy – is created not merely by people or things extraneous to the central characters, but by an internal transformation within a central character. Shaikh’s Avinash, a committed socialist student who storms out of newspaper offices rather than re-write his pieces, finds the economic pressures of domesticity bending him into a rather more pliable employee than the idealistic girl who fell for him could ever have imagined.
In that transition— from the unflashy, stubborn grit of the college-going Avinash to a man who seems almost enthusiastic as he adopts one sharp practice after another to advance his publishing career—we see the brilliant range of Farooque Shaikh as an actor. The bumbling confusion of the good boy encountering the possibility of romance – think of Chashme Buddoor – and the garrulous sharp talker whom you probably shouldn’t believe but whom you cannot fail to be charmed by – think of Katha – are, in Saath-Saath, merged into a single character. Naval, too, transitions with consummate ease from the demure girl with the dancing eyes to the woman choked by the tears in her throat.
In recent years, both Naval and Shaikh have had their chance to return to the big screen – and in two memorable instances, to actually flex their acting muscles: Naval in Nandita Das’s Firaaq as a middle-aged Gujarati housewife in post-riot Ahmedabad and Shaikh in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, as an oily bureaucrat adept at the power games of a rotten polity, shifting expertly from obsequious to threatening.
Sadly, Listen… Amaya doesn’t offer them any such opportunities. What it does do is to bring the two of them into the same frame for the first time in decades, giving their loyal following—all us Madhavs in the real world—a chance to bask in the nostalgic glow of their togetherness. Being the attentive, natural performers that they are, Shaikh and Naval—playing widowed upper middle class 60-somethings who have found companionship and comfort in each other—carry most of their scenes with an easy warmth. Swara Bhaskar plays Naval’s daughter, making fairly believable both Amaya’s rather-too-childish mood-swings and her discomfort with the fact that her mother could possibly share a life (and a bed) with another man—even if he’s as teddy-bearish as Farooque Shaikh.
And yet much of this film seems stilted and coy, a picture postcard version of upper middle class life that fails ever to come to life. Part of the problem is that these characters are given very little by way of location—and what there is seems like something of a la-la-land. Deepti Naval’s coffee-shop-owning Leela Krishnamurti – archly referred to by her cool young customers as Mrs. K – seems to have led a life in which even the early death of a husband did not catapult her and her young daughter into any kind of financial stress. The café-cum-bookshop, set in a perpetually rainy (!) Delhi bungalow-with-garden, doesn’t seem like it would actually pay even for its own upkeep. Farooq Shaikh’s Jayant, too, is given only a personal history, not a professional one. In the film’s present, he lives in his own lush bungalow-with-garden, and spends his time taking amateur photographs. This is a supremely comfortable Delhi in which everyone has a superbly-appointed tasteful house, young women can leave their jobs at the drop of a hat and not have to find another one, and stories one wrote as a nine-year-old can become the basis for coffee table books about “memories” that have Oxbridge-accented publishers lining up for sequels.
“Live by what you believe in, even if it kills you,” Amaya’s dead father apparently used to say. It is a statement that might have encapsulated the difficult dilemmas of Saath Saath. Somehow, in a world so utterly bereft of conflict or danger as, it feels like empty rhetoric. Amid the perpetually steaming coffee cups and rain-drenched windows of Listen… Amaya, it’s just another coffee table line for a coffee table movie.