Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Sky Is Pink: Review

A film about the impending death of a terminally ill child, narrated by the dead child from beyond the grave. You can’t lose with a setup like that: even a strictly competent director could push the required buttons and reduce viewers to a sniffly mess. But you can’t win either. No matter how much you pare it down, there’ll always be someone accusing you of manipulating tears from the spectacle of a dying kid. Shonali Bose’s The Sky Is Pink errs on the side of caution, keeping the impending tragedy in view at all times, but wrapping everything in good vibes and the kind of courage you have no option but to admire.

On the roof of an Old Delhi house, Aditi (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) wakes up her husband, Niren (Farhan Akhtar), to the news that she’s pregnant. After a quick spell of blaming each other – something that’ll recur through the film – they’re faced with the question: what next? Aditi wants to keep the baby. Niren wants to abort – with good reason. They’d once had a daughter, who died soon after she was born. They found out she had severe combined immunodeficiency, a condition which leaves its victims extremely vulnerable to infections. Any child of theirs would have a one in four chance of being born with the same.

Aisha – whose voiceover breezily informs us that “the end" has already happened for her – does, indeed, have SCID, which requires her to be in London for treatment. She grows up there, alone with her mother at first as Niren heads back to India to earn a living; then with both of them and her older brother, Ishaan (Rohit Suresh Saraf), on the outskirts of London; and finally back in a farmhouse in Delhi. Her condition makes normal life almost impossible, but she still manages to go to school (for one scene at least), paint, write, fall in love, and allay parental concerns with dry comic barbs.

Bose worked with similarly heart-tugging material in 2014’s Margarita With A Straw, about a young woman with cerebral palsy. Her new film (screenplay by Bose and Nilesh Maniyar; dialogue by Maniyar and Juhi Chaturvedi) is comfier, less jagged. The reaction shots of baby Aisha yawning and gurgling are an early indication that there will be plenty of sugar to help the grim premise go down. The long goodbye is eased by the good life, with teens lounging by the pool and domestic staff bringing them double espressos, and a bit of Zoya Akhtar-esque deep-sea diving (having Aisha come face to face with a sea turtle, a creature known for its long life-span, is a neat idea). Mikey McCleary’s score is the shiniest object of all, its jauntiness mostly at odds with the delicate emotions in play.

Zaira Wasim is a rare young actor who doesn’t go hunting for the audience’s sympathy; she plays Aisha as calm and funny instead of angry or tragic. The focus, though, remains on her parents – which is just as well, since it would have taken a different sort of film to explore the psyche of a dying teenager. In its best moments, The Sky is Pink is a perceptive look at the pressures that descend on a marriage when there’s a seriously ill child involved. The scenes with Niren and Aditi laying into each other are emotionally volatile in a way the rest of the film isn’t. Both actors respond beautifully, especially Chopra, who is believably fraught, determined and frayed by turn.

Bose’s film is based on a real-life story: there really was an Aisha Chaudhary, born to Niren and Aditi, who died at 18. This is a touching tribute to a life cut short, even if the experience is less wrenching than what one might expect. After Aisha dies, the next scene is her funeral, with loud country music trampling over the goodbyes we’ve just witnessed. It reminded me of the ending to The Broken Circle Breakdown, a 2012 Belgian film about a couple who lose their young daughter to cancer. It ends with the wife on her deathbed, the husband and their bluegrass band playing her on her way out. It’s a desperately sad scene to begin with, but as the music picks up the band members start to smile and whoop. The Sky Is Pink has similar reserves of emotion, but nothing breaks through its manicured surface in so electrifying a manner.

This review appeared in Mint.

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