Monday, March 24, 2014

Ankhon Dekhi: Review

An intertitle at the end informs us that Ankhon Dekhi is dedicated to Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul. This makes sense – not only because Rajat Kapoor assisted these directors early in his career, but also because his latest feature is a fair idea of what a Shahani or Kaul film might look like if they were at all fun to watch. This is not to belittle the achievements of these two great, serious directors. It’s just that it’s a brave soul who reaches for Satah Se Uthata Aadmi instead of Chupke Chupke at the end of the day. Ankhon Dekhi is satisfying on both levels – it has the look and feel of an art film, with its meticulous framing and philosophical digressions, but none of the intellectual distance of one.

Kapoor, who’s written and directed the film, plays Rishi, the younger brother in a lower middle class Old Delhi joint family. Normally, Rishi –upwardly mobile, looking to break with tradition and family – would be the natural dramatic centre, but this film is more interested in his mild-mannered elder brother Bauji (Sanjay Mishra), who decides one day that he’s no longer going to believe anything he can’t see with his own eyes. This leads to his quitting his job, causing a minor sensation in the neighbourhood, and driving his long-suffering wife round the bend.

What looks like a pretext for a few easy laughs evolves into something more profound. Bauji isn’t really trying to be difficult or impress anyone; he’s simply attempting to rearrange his world until it assumes a shape he can understand. He’s ridiculed initially and is unmoved; later, he gains a flock, and remains unimpressed. Like Yossarian sitting naked in a tree in Catch-22, or Bob Dylan circa ’66 confusing a gaggle of pressmen by interviewing them, this is Bauji’s way of countering a world gone crazy.

Even as Bauji makes his stand, everyday life – report cards and illnesses, domestic squabbles and weddings – continues unabated. It’s the specificity of this clutter that sets Ankhon Dekhi apart from other smartly written films that follow the mainline of a story and keep everything else as background decoration. Kapoor keeps everyone and everything in focus. Every person who wanders in front of the camera is worthy of interest: not just Bauji and Rishi and their families, but a series of minor characters ranging from the priest’s gossipy son to a math teacher who has a crisis of faith. The level of detail owes as much to the writing as it does to the sound recording (Resul Pookutty, Amrit Pritam Dutta), with multiple voices overlapping and talking at cross-purposes like in an Altman film. And cinematographer Rafey Mehmood works wonders, creating the illusion of depth in crowded, cramped spaces.

While it might hamper the film’s chances at the box office, the absence of known faces goes some way towards establishing the ordinariness of the characters. Just how distracting better-known actors would have been in these surroundings is underlined by a Ranvir Shorey cameo. The audience, aware of his long-standing association with Kapoor, laughed as soon as he appeared onscreen and the spell was momentarily broken. Luckily, the cameos are few and brief, and we’re mostly carried along by a lively, if unknown, cast. They mesh so well together that it seems unfair to single anyone out; even Mishra treats his rare lead role with the modesty of a supporting player.

In the past, Kapoor has directed films that were mildly amusing, and one – the 2008 black comedy Mithya – which was strange, searching and almost great. Ankhon Dekhi is unquestionably great, but don’t take our word for it. See it, as Bauji would insist, with your own eyes.

This review appeared in Time Out.

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