'Waiting' review: Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin shine in a lovely film
Considering the grim subject and setting – the intensive care unit of a luxe hospital in Kochi –Waiting is a surprisingly pleasant and positive film.
Anu Menon’s second directorial venture has the same lightness of touch and natural storytelling style she brought to her debut in 2012’s London, Paris, New York starring Aditi Rao Hydari and Ali Zafar. Yet this film is as different from her first as night is from day and Tara is from Shiv.
Tara and Shiv are Tara Deshpande-Kapoor (Kalki Koechlin) and Professor Shiv Natraj (Naseeruddin Shah) in this Hindi-English-occasionally-Malayalam (subtitled) film Waiting.
They ought, henceforth, to be an accepted metaphor for strangers who really “get” each other.
She is a feisty, often foul-mouthed, occasionally unthinking though always well-meaning, impatient, impetuous, flashy, attractive, young, recently married woman. Her husband Rajat has just been in a near-fatal accident that sends him into a coma.
Shiv’s wife of 40 years, Pankaja, has been in a coma for eight months. He is a spirited yet sobre, prim and propah, meticulous, kind, staid old man and theirs has been a happy marriage.
Tara is well off. Shiv has taken on back-breaking debt to pay Pankaja’s medical bills.
The two meet in the waiting room of the Kochi hospital where their respective spouses lie in an Intensive Care Unit. As they bond over their grief, fears and difficult decisions, they form an unlikely friendship that transcends age and backgrounds.
He does not know what Twitter is; the discovery that he has been married for four decades elicits an incredulous “oh fuck” from her. Here is what they do have in common though: they both adore their spouses.
It is the simplest of premises drawn from a challenging phase in Menon’s own life. Under her direction aided by a strong script she has co-written with James Ruzicka, it turns into a warm, telling commentary on love, family, generation gaps, inner strength and basic human goodness.
The film is not only about two grieving individuals though. Central to the plot is the fact that Tara is more alone than she might otherwise have been in this tragic scenario, because she has been plucked out of her home city Mumbai and planted in a new milieu where she has no friends and does not understand the language. Kochi is busy and buzzing in comparison with other Kerala towns and cities, yet not as much as India’s biggest metropolises; it is large enough to offer the kind of high-end hospital where Rajat is being treated, but not as crowded or frenetic as Chennai and Bengaluru in a way that might be familiar and comforting to a lonely Mumbaikar.
The hustle and bustle of daily life can sometimes be used to drown out the voices in our heads. In relatively languorous Kochi, Tara does not have that option.
In such a place, away from her family and social circle, it is but natural that she would turn for comfort to a local who is also somewhat of an outsider: Pankaja is a Malayali, Shiv is not. Being a retiree gives him enough time to be devoted to his comatose wife while also offering a shoulder to cry on to Tara who initially strikes him as an inexplicable drama queen.
If you go looking for dramatic twists, you will not find them here. Waiting is not that kind of film. It does, however, throw a bunch of questions at us. When we pray for a bed-ridden loved one’s longevity, are we doing it for them or for ourselves? Is it selfish to long for their survival irrespective of the quality of life they may have? If you pull the plug on someone you love, are you giving up on them?
Waiting does not spoonfeed us responses to these questions as universal truths. It leaves us to find our own answers while its protagonists find theirs.
Shah and Koechlin complement the film’s non-preachy and realistic tone. There is a natural rhythm to their acting and the chemistry between them is unmistakable.
Tara is the kind of woman who thinks nothing of making her husband’s evidently conservative colleague squirm by asking him if Rajat was sleeping with a business associate. Koechlin’s achievement is that she makes her character appealing despite her brashness.
Shah is charismatic as ever. Although his pupils appear strangely dilated in some close-ups, those shots do not happen so often as to be distracting. The actor does not resort to over-statement at any point although there are plenty of scenes where he could have. Even when Shiv gets frantic about Pankaja, care is taken not to reduce him to a caricature of an eccentric old man.
His is a seemingly effortless and moving performance.
The film features several well-written supporting roles. National Award-winning Tamil-Telugu- Malayalam actress Suhasini Maniratnam and Arjun Mathur are so likeable in cameos as Pankaja and Rajat that you can well imagine a spouse pining away for months and years for them.
Actor Krishnasankar as the junior doctor Ravi and Rajeev Ravindranathan playing Girish from Rajat’s Kochi office are interesting choices. It is nice to see the film’s Malayali characters being played without the usual Bollywood ‘Madrasi’ stereotyping.
Rajat Kapoor walks a fine line as the neurosurgeon Dr Nirupam Malhotra, making him a man who is hard to dislike although he is painfully practical in a way that some people might consider heartless, even egotistical. I did not entirely understand why he had to be a Punjabi though – this is not to suggest that there are no Punjabi doctors in Kochi, but that the lack of locals except in supporting, subordinate positions is curious. Except for this and a somewhat contrived, needless revelation Shiv makes to Pankaja at one point, the rest of the film flows as smoothly as the backwaters that briefly appear on screen.
Waiting is about some of the toughest decisions life can throw at us and about an unusual, heartwarming friendship. It is both sad and amusing, believable, well acted and very well told.