When we first meet Tara (Kalki Koechlin), she’s being ribbed by her friends about a sanitary napkin commercial she’s appeared in. She isn’t amused. This could start a revolution, a new wave, she tells them. As so often happens, fate chooses a moment of hubris to throw her life out of whack. A couple of scenes later, Tara is in an upscale Kochi hospital, panicky and powerless. Her husband, Rajat (Arjun Mathur), to whom she has been married six weeks, has been in a road accident and is now in a coma. The next 48 hours will be crucial, she’s told.
Waiting could have stretched out Tara’s agony at this point, but instead it reveals the wry comic undercurrent that runs just beneath its themes of grief and duty. Tara strikes up a conversation with Shiv (Naseeruddin Shah), a retired professor, who tells her that all patients are handed the “48 hour” line. Pankaja (Suhasini Maniratnam), Shiv’s wife of 40 years, has been in a coma for the past eight months in the same hospital. He has been in Tara’s shoes and has learnt how to counter his grief through routine. He advises her to eat, sleep and take care of herself. Like him, she might be in for a long wait.
At first, Tara isn’t willing to be patient. She lashes out at the doctors, at Rajat’s colleague, at her absent friends; holes up in her hotel room. As Anu Menon’s film spells out in one of its less subtle scenes, she’s moving through the early stages of grief: denial, anger. Conversely, the moment she arrives (partially, at least) at “acceptance” is beautifully rendered. When she’s given the bag her husband had on him at the time of the accident, she rifles through its contents and puts on his watch. From that point on, it’s always on her wrist. She’s on his time now.
As Tara forces herself to wait, the film juxtaposes her situation with Shiv’s, who has become so used to waiting that he refuses to accept the prognosis of his wife’s unsentimental doctor, Nirupam (Rajat Kapoor), and take her off the ventilator. Tara has reason to be hopeful, but can’t stand being told to stay positive; Shiv has an abundance of hope with little basis in reality. Together, they would probably add up to one functional grieving person. But, as Waiting shows us, grief is difficult to share, and we watch as the two of them stumble and feel their way towards clarity.
Though there are a couple of deft ancillary character sketches—Rajat’s colleague, played by Rajeev Ravindranathan, is an especially winsome form of comic relief—Waiting mostly sticks close to Tara and Shiv. Even with a built-in excuse for sentiment, Menon isn’t overly concerned with endearing her characters to us. Over the course of the film, we are made privy to their memories and missteps and confessions, not just the prickly Tara’s, but the soft-spoken, courteous Shiv’s. This emotional intimacy is made literal by Neha Parti Matiyani’s camera, which repeatedly catches Shah and Koechlin in carefully framed close-ups. Shah bears up well under this scrutiny, but it’s Koechlin who makes the stronger impression, messy and profane in her anger, but also very funny when making fun of her older compatriot.
There are sequences that lack conviction—that feel like they have been inserted because they would belong to a film like this and not because they are right for this film. Tara and Shiv dancing in his flat might have been intended as a breather for the audience, but it’s tonally jarring and awkward. There’s also the junior doctor asking Dr Nirupam, “Are you meaning to play god?”, and him replying, “Sometimes, god is what our patients need,” which, even if true, need hardly be stated in such a Rajkumar Hirani-like manner. Yet, apart from a few wobbles, Waiting walks the line between emotional resonance and emotional manipulation skilfully. Hospitals, whether on the big or small screen, are usually used for their dramatic possibilities: IV demanded “stat”, failing hearts electro-shocked into life. How curious that someone glimpsed, in the same setting, the emotional possibilities of inaction, of waiting.
This review appeared in Mint.