The Sky is Pink fails to do justice to a true story by succumbing to gross generalisation on caregiving families
The Sky is Pink, directed by Shonali Bose, is based on a ‘true story’, which has us wondering: should not a ‘true story’ contain personal detail specific to some people? The strange thing about this ‘true story’ is that none of the above is made evident, and its trajectory might hold good for any family dealing with the same illness. In order for the film to touch us with its story of human mortality, it would have needed to make it unique, instead of pandering to generalisation. But this is something it doesn’t even try to do.
The Sky is Pink belongs to a class of cinema unimaginable a decade ago, about family situations involving ordinary people played by Bollywood stars, without an attempt to make them heroic or larger than life.
Directed by Shonali Bose, the film is, however, based on a 'true story', which has us wondering: should not a 'true story' contain personal detail specific to some people?
The strange thing about this 'true story' is that none of the above is made evident, and its trajectory might hold good for any family dealing with the same illness.
The Sky is Pink belongs to a class of cinema unimaginable a decade ago, about family situations involving ordinary people played by Bollywood stars, without an attempt to make them heroic or larger than life. This has been made possible only because educated people can be specifically targeted through multiplexes. The educated class, on being exposed to literature and world cinema, craves a new kind of ‘intimate’ entertainment that deals with private people going about their lives and coping with ordinary crises. But the fact that the film is quite difficult to sit through suggests that the kind of intimate family dramas Hollywood once boasted of (Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, Kramer Vs Kramer) are still out of reach for Bollywood, though that is apparently what The Sky is Pink aspires for.
The Sky is Pink, directed by Shonali Bose, is based on a ‘true story’, which has us wondering: should not a ‘true story’ contain personal detail specific to some people? For instance, one's family history, their financial status, the job of the 'man of the house', and the kind of people he hobnobs with? The strange thing about this ‘true story’ is that none of the above is made evident, and its trajectory might hold good for any family dealing with the same illness. The story is told from the perspective of a dead girl, Aisha Chaudhary, who passed away due to a lung ailment while still in her teens. The use of a voiceover for a dead narrator is not new and, as an instance, Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) employed the same strategy. In this film, the ruse is to affirm that Aisha lives on, at least in people’s hearts.
The film spans over a period of 25 years or so, and begins with Aditi Chaudhary (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) waking up and going to an empty bed once occupied by her daughter Aisha. Her husband Niren (Farhan Akhtar) joins her, and we sense the trauma in their recent past. We now go back to the late 1990s in a flashback, when Aditi becomes pregnant but refuses to abort the foetus — although that is what Niren wants — since she is now Catholic by conviction. They have a son Ishaan, and we learn that both parents have the same recessive gene, as a result of which they lost their first child to an immunodeficiency disorder. Aisha suffers from the same ailment. In this part of the film, Aditi and Niren are described as being sexually involved, while they literally cavort around town. But making it incongruous is the paucity of ‘chemistry’ between the lead actors, who keep exchanging smiles and glances rather half-heartedly.
Neither Farhan Akhtar nor Priyanka Chopra is particularly watchable in the film, but I think this has little to do with their ability as actors. A young person dying of an incurable disease may be affecting but not nearly as much as it should be for the audience to be glued to their seats. In the first place, it is not enough to stick to an illness as the subject of a story, simply because for a story to have a trajectory, it needs to oscillate between ups and downs. So when the symptoms abate in intervals, how is the film to fill up that seemingly extraneous time? The Sky is Pink deals with these intervals by showing the family being ‘happy’. This translates into people laughing and/or dancing or/and having parties.
Occasionally, they are also travelling to places made familiar by tourist brochures, and go diving, snorkelling, etc. Equating meaningless laughter with happiness is peculiar to Bollywood, at least judging from the merriment of stars on Koffee with Karan, where the laughs are far in excess of the provocation. The same equation is used in the film, where nothing happens in Aisha’s 'healthy' intervals, no relationships develop, and no other crises strike — not even at Niren’s workplace, for instance. Aisha is a teenager, but is not allowed romances even though there is a boy always in attendance. It’s as though dealing with her illness is the only legitimate activity allowed to or by the family.
If the trajectory of the Chaudhary family is to be charted chronologically, it would begin with Aditi’s pregnancy, then go on to the discovery of Aisha’s illness in London, followed by the family raising contributions through a public appeal, after which Aisha is cured and lives till the age of 19. Soon after, a new illness rears its head when Niren becomes the ‘country head’ at his company in India, following which the ailment is declared incurable, leading Aisha to eventually succumbing to it. Now, compare this with Ordinary People (1980), in which the trauma is due to the accidental death of one son. However, in that film, there are also episodes of an attempted suicide of the other son, and the family getting split asunder by the parents blaming each other, even as the mother keeps up appearances. What is important is that there are so many reasons for conflict that the drama in Ordinary People stays alive. The brief interlude in The Sky is Pink, when a blood test makes Niren suspect Ishaan’s paternity but is proved false, happens so quickly that it seems like a joke that has passed by even before one could register it.
If one were to use musical analogies for the two narratives, then The Sky is Pink would be more like a melody, in which a single instrument (comprising Aisha’s illness) is entrusted with creating all the drama. Ordinary People is like a harmony, in which elements seemingly unrelated create concurrent conflicts that also influence each other. While I use the above comparison only as a metaphor, the melodic soundtrack of The Sky is Pink by Pritam is rudimentary in its attempt to wring out pathos. It is so basic that its intention to influence the spectators' mood appear foolish even. Family life is a complicated matter, but in the film, it’s simply the waxing and waning of an illness. The result is that we barely get the sense that anyone cares for anyone else in the film.
Indian cinema has rarely indulged in the 'complex', with most of it being restricted to merely relaying a message, even if they nominally respect real-life situations. As long as they keep themselves to fairytales of Manichaean themes (i.e. seeing the world as black and white), such storytelling is acceptable. But The Sky is Pink tries to explore a more intimate reality, which should accommodate aspects of life as we know it, riddled with complex issues. In a way, the crux of the film is reminiscent of the story of Kisa Gotami and the Buddha.
After losing her only child, Kisa Gotami, wife to a rich man, went about town in desperate search of help. Many thought she had lost her wits due to her overwhelming grief. Soon after, an old man asked her to visit the Buddha, who told her that he could bring the child back to life, provided she could find white mustard seeds from a family who had suffered no deaths. Kisa Gotami went door-to-door, only to leave empty-handed, as there wasn't a single household that hadn't experienced death. Finally, she realised that the Buddha tried to show her how no family could escape the inevitability of death. So, in order for The Sky is Pink to touch us with its story of human mortality, it would have needed to make it unique, instead of pandering to generalisation. But this is something it doesn’t even try to do.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books, including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.
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