Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha review: Tanuja Chandra speaks volumes of sisterhood through 'a tale of two grannies'
Through her documentary Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha, Tanuja Chandra touches upon female coping, mortality, rural life, and dependence.
A couple of years after telling delightful stories about the entrepreneurial ladies of Uttar Pradesh in her book Bijnis Women, filmmaker Tanuja Chandra guides us to a window into the world of Lahra, a quaint village in the state. She documents a visit to the ancestral home of her paternal aunts, Radha (93 at the time) and Sudha (85), and shines a light on the minimal comforts of rural India.
The documentary, Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha, as the title explains, is not confined to recounting the experience of a sheltered village stay but is centred around a day (or a few more) in the life of the two elderly ladies. Minutes into the film, and one knows they are self-dependent owing to retirement benefits from government jobs. But the irony, one realises as the film progresses, is they are heavily dependent on the co-existence during their autumn years.
One of them is seen telling Tanuja that the possibility of the other passing away earlier always makes her anxious. "Life will be difficult for the other one," she says in Hindi. That they are less intimidated by death than the absence of each other is a testimony to their inseparable companionship. Radha, when asked if she frets over death, replies nonchalantly, "Why wait for death? It'll come either tomorrow or some day later. Should I wait for it at the doorstep with a welcome mat?"
The evident sense of humour while discussing even the gravest of remarks is the need of the hour when the entire nation, and major parts of the world, are in a lockdown because of the coronavirus outbreak. While acknowledging the lurking doom, one can have a laugh about it too. The humour, as is expected of a well-spirited 95-year-old lady, is endearingly honest even if characteristically straight-faced.
The best bits of the documentary unravel when the two women argue with each other over issues as trivial as whether the chholas are aromatic enough, why one refuses to lend her surplus saris to the other, and why a few flowers should not be uprooted in the garden to make space for a fountain. But these heated arguments (which get resolved rather quickly) explain how determined they are to have things their way even at this stage of life.
The bone of contention is also that Radha is way too malleable and submissive to the situation than what Sudha wants her to be. In her defense, Radha justifies Sudha's adamant nature by claiming she has started to live life on her own terms only now. Sudha was married at the age of 17 to a man with a diametrically opposite personality. "He was reserved, docile, and a little abnormal by the virtue of being a mathematician," Sudha says in a lighter vein.
Along with their quirks, what makes both the aunts immensely, and endlessly, watchable is the space they inhabit and the family they have grown fond of over the years. Living in no less than a palatial haweli, rich of a green cover in the form of both a garden and neighbouring farms, Sudha and Rudha go about their daily chores with mutual understanding. Though they admit they cannot live without each other, they need their fair share of space as well.
The film opens with a telling scene of the maid making morning tea for the aunts in separate vessels. When the tea is served, they turn their back towards each other and sip on, but it does not take too long for one to remind the other to take her medicine. Later in the film, Tanuja points out to the aunts that they have separate cupboards. Sudha promptly replies that the clothes drying rack placed between the two cupboards is the 'Partition.'
The bond between the two grannies makes for the ideal marriage there can ever be. They consider each other indispensable yet agree that they need their own tiny corners to visit frequently.
Another aspect Tanuja touches upon is that it takes a village to look after her two aunts. They may seem self-dependent or co-dependent but they express gratitude towards the army of support staff that helps take care of their daily chores and the huge property. Each staff member has a story to tell about their association with the family. One claims he has grown up in the haweli as he has worked there for over 50 years. Another reveals her defense mechanism when Aunty Sudha shouts at her: "I start playing devotional songs on my phone."
All of them unanimously admit they are devoted to the two ladies, and consider their service equivalent to worshiping the almighty. The two aunts also express their gratitude in both words and gestures. A visit to the neighbouring farms tells us that the land is divided into nine areas, where each farm (and its produce) is owned by a staff member. By the end of the documentary, consecutive close-up shots of each staff member and a 'family portrait' of all of them at the main gate of the haweli demonstrate how the film becomes as much about them as the two aunts.
Some of these close-up shots, along with those of the two aunts, show how cinematographer Eeshit Narain establishes emotional resonance of the film through the lens. All the close-up shots of smiles, some yellow-coated, some bright white, reflect Aunty Radha's wise words, "The natural state of the soul is happiness." He also makes us peek into Aunty Radha's eyes which harbour decades of experience. They are certainly not dewy but the tinkle speaks of a life well lived. In the opening shots of the film, there is a montage of the haweli and its confluence with the skyline, which leaves an impression of a serene painting in the viewer's mind.
Chandan Arora's editing is crisp but never hurried. The pace takes into account the two aunts' sprightliness without discounting their poise. The documentary is also knit with great detail and fursat since the sequence in which the scenes appear are evidently non-linear. A lot of effort has gone into translating hours of footage into a story, which prevents the film from looking like it has no leg to stand on.
Music composer Arjit Dutta allows the sound department to take forefront rather than injecting too much background noise into the narrative. The ambient sounds, like the constant screams of peacocks, take precedence over the more synthetic instrumental music. It is a smart creative call since the voiceover runs parallel to the visuals for most of the film.
In an interview to Firstpost, Tanuja had mentioned that in a country obsessed with youth, she wanted to make a film about her two elderly aunts because it is not possible that a woman who has lived for so many years does not have something to offer that one can learn from. The frequent and uninhibited laughter of Tanuja peppered throughout the film shows exactly what she may have picked up, while narrating a tale of two grannies.
Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha is streaming on MUBI INDIA.
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