Two strangers meeting in a hospital waiting for their beloved partners who are in a comatose state, is a perfect subject material for melancholy with a capital M inscribed all over it. But director Anu Menon’s tragically witty, humorous take on grief and desolation ‘Waiting’ is strangely uplifting and philosophical, without at once being pedantic or languorous. Beautifully described by a critic as a cross between ‘Lost in Translation’ and ‘The Descendants’, it is refreshingly restrained (a bit more restrained than maybe what it should have been).
Tara Deshpande finds herself suddenly in an alien city Kochi at the bedside of her husband who has been badly injured in an accident when at work in Kerala – a place quite remote from the bursting life of Mumbai. It is an unfamiliar even stifling setting that she finds herself in, armed with nothing but just the knowledge that her husband in a bad shape. Her best friends have their own busy lives and can’t spare time for her in this cathartic situation.
Shiv Nataraj makes his daily trips to the hospital to see his ailing wife who shows no signs of recovery but he can’t give up hope. In his words – khaana, sona, nahaana, yeh rukna nahin chahiye. Yeh ruk gaye to sab kuch ruk gaya samjho – and so keeps himself going. But words can be empty – you see him dumping the food his friendly neighbours make for him and when at 6 AM every morning, he is awake unfailingly; you wonder if he needs the sleeping pills that he offers Tara. Is his disciplined and regular schedule his way to handle his emotional trauma? Maybe if we were to allowed to spend more time in his solitude, we would know better.
Anu Menon sets up a clear contrast between the two central characters – One is a man, the other a woman. One is a retired professor, the other is a young media savvy lady. One is a gentleman who measures his words (only a gentleman reads Wodehouse, no?), the other is a brash foul-mouthed woman. One marriage has ‘lasted’ (not lasted as Shiv points out) 4 decades, the other has just completed 4 weeks. One accepts the situation on the outside but is still not willing to let go off the partner, the other does not wish the partner to suffer. But what is common to both is the sense of grief they are forced to come face-to-face with and the lack of external support systems to handle this emotional burden – one has no children and the other no parental support for their marriage. Both these absences are choices that they have made and it isn’t something that troubles them.
The plot is sparse and depends on the heart-to-heart tete-a-tete between the protagonists as they ruminate over their emotional struggles to take it ahead. It is easy to go the whole hog and reduce the film to an emotional tear jerker with the audience weeping buckets, seeing two loners venting out their frustrations. Maybe even add dramatic music to heighten their isolation but Anu shows remarkable subtlety to pull back and not stretch any moment to squeeze our tear glands. A couple of instances that drive home this point – Tara’s best friend comes down to visit her at the hospital but she has to leave in some time and there is no one left by her side to help her out in this situation. It could be an enticing thought to show the audience the fickle nature of modern friendships (already heightened by the Twitter conversation) but you genuinely sense that there is only a limit to which a best friend can do in this situation and she also has a family back home to take care.
There is often a temptation to paint the medical fraternity with a negative brush when dealing with such a situation in films but thankfully here, they come off as likable characters who have to balance sorrow and their professional duties. Dr. Nirupam Malhotra (played by Rajat Kapoor), the chief neurosurgeon, has the difficult task of empathizing with his patients but at the same time, be pragmatic enough to take the awkward decision of drawing the line between letting the patients know what is right for them and being entirely honest about their state. It isn’t the easiest of situations to be in but the doctor does this unenviable job and educates the younger ones to play ‘God’ when the situation arises because (in his words) God cannot come in for the daily 9 AM rounds, so they are his substitutes.
There are a couple of conversations that stuck to me even as I left the theatre. The first, an exchange between Dr Nirupam and Shiv, when the doctor remarks that it is futile to keep his wife Pankaja (Suhasini) this way spending lakhs and asks him whether this is what she would have wanted. And Shiv, in his emotional turmoil, says – Aap apni biwi ke saath discuss karte hai har sham ki darling agar tum coma main jaogi toh kitne din life support main rahna chahogi?. Brilliant! It wasn’t just the effortlessness of the repartee but it struck me for a second, how unprepared we probably would be to cope if faced with such a catastrophic moment in our life. Do we ever discuss death until it stares at our face and mocks at our mortality? At the same time, it also raises that uncomfortable question on when is the right time to pull the plug on a loved one’s life? Can you ever say that enough has been done and one can now bid adieu? The director could have left us to ponder over that thunderbolt of a dialogue from Nasser but a moment later, she brings us face to face with the practical and possibly deeper issue why Shiv wants to keep fighting – Dr Nirupam tells Shiv that he wasn’t doing this for his wife but for himself because in her absence, he wouldn’t know how to go ahead in his life. Letting go isn’t easy at all – you may have fight with yourself multiple times but the heart is scared of being alone.
Another one is when Tara says she has 1500 friends on Facebook and 5000 followers on Twitter but at this moment, there is no one with her. And Shiv nonchalantly wonders what Twitter is? There is a delightful explanation of what it is – a fuc**** ‘notice board’ for people to rave and rant. And as she tries to explain this to him, she realizes how hollow it appears. Again, a powerful moment to look back at the futility of it all – the narcissistic world of social media magnifies your friendships – and Shiv rightly tells her – This is your grief and yours alone. They are at different stages of grief in their lives – she, in that dark zone of depression, and he in that Zen like state of acceptance over a period of time; it is a journey that takes time.
I am also glad that at any point of time, the director did not succumb to the idea of allowing the camera to linger lazily along the beauty of Kerala – something that a lot of directors tend to do. The camera largely settles down at the hospital corridors and takes a back seat, allowing the conversations do all the action. I presume that there was a deliberate attempt to underplay the visuals and let the humour in the dialogues dominate so as to prune down the morbidity of the place and the situation. Grief has many dimensions and one cannot always be in the same state of mind – humour is a space that is needed to provide some relief in dealing with it.
Did the film miss out on anything? I think it had scope for its ‘Lost in Translation’ moments by juxtaposing the two leads in a place, in a language alien to them. The absence of familiarity and the contrast between their cities could have been used as a device to showcase their sense of loss more acutely. Maybe, if we had more interaction with the people around, instead of just the two of them, it would help us in understanding them more. What is it that drives Shiv to keep going back and forth to the hospital for more than 8 months, even when hope keeps sinking? Wouldn’t we want to know the man more so that we feel his pain more intensely? Both the stories have minor flashbacks (shown twice) but neither of them gives us any further knowledge about the two couples. Somehow, I think, in the attempt to focus solely on the chemistry between the lead pair, the film misses out on telling about them as individuals and their family stories.
Rajeev Ravindranathan amiably enacts Girish, the company man who has the onerous task of taking care of all arrangements and ensuring that Tara isn’t too troubled while Rajat Kapoor as the exasperated but detached doctor who has our empathy strikes the right notes. With top notch performances by Naseeruddin Shah as the philosophical Kochi professor and Kalki Kochelin as the young temperamental woman from Mumbai, Anu Menon has whipped a warm and thought-provoking film that deals with its heavy handed theme with dignity and humour and there is not a dull moment till its open-ended climax. Backed by Mikey McClearly’s lovely soundtrack (especially the haunting Zara zara and Tu hai to main hun) and soft visuals, ‘Waiting’ is easily, my favourite movie of 2016 so far.
The only thing that puzzled me as I came out of the theatre is how come the film received an ‘A’ rating? Anu mentioned in a tweet that this was because of the liberal sprinkling of swear words in the film. This is true but shouldn’t the Censor Board rate a film on the basis of its impact and not evaluate individual scenes and base their judgement? ‘Waiting’ is a beautiful, independent film that needs more audience but the ‘A’ rating keeps away family audiences and truth be told, it is their loss….