First Take| Introspecting on loneliness, solitude with films Kaasav, Nowhere Special and After Love

Cinema about bereavement and solitude is always a cathartic experience. Three recent films, one Marathi and two British, on loss and acceptance, had me crying out loud.

Subhash K Jha January 22, 2022 12:07:31 IST
First Take| Introspecting on loneliness, solitude with films Kaasav, Nowhere Special and After Love

Cinema about bereavement and solitude is always a cathartic experience, especially when done with a tinge of self-revelation. If a director has gone through some of the emotions of desolation himself (or herself) he/she is better qualified, more equipped to externalise the grief on screen.

Three recent films, one Marathi and two British, on loss and acceptance, had me crying out loud.

Kaasav

Finding the Marathi film Kaasav is like finding a small treasure that needs preservation. In fact, protecting the endangered is an ongoing theme in Kaasav. It addresses the issue of turtles being allowed to nest in peace on the beach before plodding back into the water. It also tries to tell us how important it is for us as a society to buffer and protect the mentally distressed.

Co-directed by Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar, the bare stripped-down minimalist narration focuses largely on the indescribably tender relationship that grows between a compassionate divorcee Janaki (Iravati Harshe) and a suicidal depressive young man whom she finds on the street and provides a home.

First Take Introspecting on loneliness solitude with films Kaasav Nowhere Special and After Love

Alok Rajwade, Iravati Harshe in a still from Kaasav

Straightaway it would be in the fitness of things to state that young Alok Rajwade who plays Maanav in this elegiac if a tad didactic exposition on solitude, is the find of the moment. Rajwade’s eyes convey a haunted dissociation with the world around him. He is so into his character that I fear Rajwade no longer exists.

“Why do I need to live? What is the purpose?” Maanav asks Janaki who has no answers to provide. She is struggling with her own inner turmoil trying to come to terms with her intermittent panic attacks.

I wish writer Sumitra Bhave had explored the central relationship in a deeper place. Her two actors seem equipped for it. Sadly the growing relationship between the two emotional derelicts doesn’t go anywhere beyond a surface-level empathy. I expected Janaki and Maanav to get to know each other far more closely than the tentative screenplay allows.

Nowhere Special

Then there is film called Nowhere Special, which is truly special. Not since….well since never. I can’t remember when I’ve wept so much while watching a film. Certainly no Indian films in recent memory. Funny how our films have forgotten how to make us sad.

Set in quaint Northern Island, Nowhere Special is actually located in the human heart. It’s easy to say, this is a film about learning to cope with tragedy. But how do you teach a 4-year child to do that? How do you explain to him that his father is going to die? And who explains it to him when there’s just the two of them?

First Take Introspecting on loneliness solitude with films Kaasav Nowhere Special and After Love

A still from Nowhere Special | IMDb

Uberto Pasoloni’s beautiful little film is a set-up for a tearful mawkish grief-stricken manipulative film. Uberto Pasolini’s heartbreaking film is anything but manipulative or mawkish. It is gentle kind subtle and beautiful. It will break your heart into pieces and then mend it again when finally it tells us that sometimes in life, there are no explanations for cruelty. Shit happens. Deal with it.

John tries. He is a 35-year old father, a window cleaner by profession, played with such a rich ruminative subtlety by James Norton. And the 4-year old boy Daniel Lamont as Michael trying to figure out why his dad is so desperate to find another home for his beloved son is a little treasure. Solemn and receptive. His on-screen chemistry with his screen-dad James Norton rings a hundred percent true. Every look of mutual understanding that the two “boys” exchange will break your heart.

There is a sequence where John dozes off on the sofa; the 4-year old Michael brings a blanket and struggles to cover his precious daddy…

Excuse me, while I sob some more.

It is a heartbreaking scenario, potentially bleak but miraculously alchemised into something magical and precious by the director’s determination to ensure that the predicament is never milked for emotions. There is no time for tears. A home must be found for Michael before it’s too late.

The potential candidates for Michael’s adoption are a motley bunch of the self righteous and consciously compassionate. It is very clear who will get to keep Michael after him. But it is never clear while God made such cruel plans for Michael. What had he done to deserve this fate?

And what have we done to deserve such a beautiful gentle treat of a film?

After Love

After Love, Pakistani director Aleem Khan’s stunning film is actually the masterpiece among these three gems on desolation. If the truth be told no genuine cineaste should miss this moving exploration of bereavement, grief and acceptance told in a style that is at once unique and familiar. Khan floats into an excruciating excursion into fantasy fiction that is not only hard to pin down but near-impossible to achieve for any director except the one who isn’t afraid to venture into the unknown with the familiar known tools of cinematic expression. I was gripped and crushed from Frame 1.

First Take Introspecting on loneliness solitude with films Kaasav Nowhere Special and After Love

Joanna Scanlan in After Love | Photograph: RÅN Studio/BFI

The film opens with a 60-plus couple entering their cosy well-appointed functional home in Dover after an evening walk. From their demeanour, it is apparent that this is a routine the couple has followed for years. He heads for the living room where he switches on a Hindi song. The sound of Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh singing 'Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayaal aata hai' wafts into the kitchen where the wife –she is Mary Hussain, a Britisher converted to Islam after marriage to her Pakistani husband—makes tea. Mary heads to the living room with the tray, conversing comfortably with her husband. He doesn’t answer. Ahmed, her husband, is dead. But wait.

This is not just a film about sudden unforeseen bereavement. As Mary’s world comes crumbling down she discovers that her husband had another life in another town with another woman in Calais, France. Secrets are revealed not to shock but as a resigned sigh at life’s unexpected blows that are rained on the individual when she is least prepared for them. Rather than wallowing in the tragedy of bereavement Aleem Khan’s screenplay is constantly on the prowl, ferreting out dimensions to the conundrum of marriage, commitment, cultural fragmentation and emotional conflict, with an unnerving calmness.

Set in the small soporific British seaside town of Dover, the splashing waves serve as a melancholic metaphor for Mary’s inexpressible grief (she listens to her husband’s voicemail messages to calm her surging grief) as she travels to France to meet her husband’s other life, other family. What happens next between the two women, is not just profoundly moving but also constantly surprising. Ahmed’s French mistress Genevieve (Nathalie Richard, no coincidence that she is reed-thin) has a 14-year old son Solomon (Talid Ariss) who is ridden with problems of a missing father and his burgeoning sexuality.

The emotional conflict is so fluent and vivid, it seems like a typical South Indian masala-dosa film about two warring women sharing the same man (ref: Maang Bharo Sajna, Raaste Pyar Ke, Nazrana) played out as a Greek tragedy. Standing tall and supremely dignified at the centre of this muted masterpiece is the little-known British actress Joanna Scanlan in her first major role. Overwrought with emotions Ms Scanlan’s portrayal of Mary Hussain’s grief is devastating in its dignity. Her eyes reflect a pain that only the camera can explain. Joanna Scanlan, as a woman torn between her dead husband’s Islamic faith and the uncertain future bequeathed to her by his unscheduled death, holds this delicately constructed drama together. Like Mary Hussain suddenly left bereft, I wonder what this film would be like without Joanna Scanlan.

While watching these three films I was repeatedly reminded of Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane and Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar. Not since these two classics of our times have I seen anything in Hindi even close to portraying the numbing solitude of the bereaved individual the way Kaasav, Nowhere Special and After Love do.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.

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