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Adhiraj Bose’s short film is a fine example of how, more often than not, Naseeruddin’s Shah’s face alone can serve as the screenplay of a film. As is the case with prominent actors of any generation, Shah thrives on less, on simplicity and solitude, letting viewers derive their own complex — or musical, or loud, or deathly silent — rendition of his on-screen existence. As witnessed earlier this year in Anu Menon’s Waiting, his eyes denote far more, and at times necessarily lesser, than a few systematically categorised words do on paper. The title is perhaps proof of how even the traditional header of a scene in a written script, in Shah’s case, can be the only three words required. The backstory of a sequence, the memories that follow, the living that happens, the what-ifs and why-me’s, the story of a life — if you look closely, you’ll find it all neatly encompassed within the wrinkles around his mouth, or enveloped by those tired sighs and shrugs of incompleteness.

Here, as an old cafe owner in Kolkata (originally ‘Birdsong Cafe’ in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra), he chances upon the cinematic quirk of destiny — a woman (an ever-elegant Shernaz Patel) he had loved, romanced and lost 30 years ago — alone at a table. “Alone” is important here; another time, in another film, he’d have to tolerate her family, which could so easily have once been his family.
How really would one approach such a circle-of-life situation? The silent jolt he expresses is an indicator of how he perhaps knows that these are things that only happens in movies, to good people who are meant to be. Together or not, is another matter. For some reason, he seems to have been more of the victim of their past than she, as is evident from his defeated, restrained voice. Resentment, or regret, one isn’t quite sure.

Simultaneously, on the next table, we see why: their young versions (played by Naveen Kasturia and Shweta Basu Prasad) on that fateful night long ago grapple with the unfathomable and young pain of letting go. She is shifting away with her family, and he can’t envision a life without her. You sense they’ve been together long enough to be bitter and irrational about this heavy decision. They’ve considered a long-distance relationship, but then again, it isn’t 2016, and there was perhaps no technology to aid love in the times of family-firsts. A few letters, phone calls, and then what? — he asks, as if they had already reluctantly charted out every pragmatic offshoot of an impractical relationship. If the brain treats rejection as physical pain, forceful separation must feel like a crippling accident. The mind is not even conditioned to be positive, especially given that there seems to be a nagging reason he can’t just yank her back and promise marriage to make her stay. Like many others from his era, maybe that was the only way, and maybe they didn’t want it to be the only way.
They didn’t compromise; she left, they cried, they lived, she moved on, he didn’t (from the looks of it) and here they are again.

Back then, he must have waited for her to show him how serious she was. By leaving, she must have convinced him that perhaps she broke his heart harder than hers did. It may have taken him years to realise that, all along, it was upto him to take the chance — if not at that moment, then later, or even later, or even five years on, before she’d forget to remember him. This is not his second chance, but his last chance. They deserved better from their last meeting — certainly better than it feeling like only one scene from a film. They deserved an entire film. In cinematic parlance, this often means a “happy ending.” After all, movies are simply lives that have stopped waiting to happen. It may be too late for him, but it’s early enough to leave that cafe happy and, hopefully, at peace.

Bose understands the quietness of his film. He keeps things simple, without harping on too much on the ‘before’ and ‘after’. His title, in a deeper sense of hindsight, is a mild stroke of genius. He places his music rather nicely too, pushing the crescendo at the exact moment we dread with the youngsters, during their desperate kisses and tragic half-sentences; he then cuts it abruptly, yanking Shah and us together out of that lingering memory. Kasturia, even in his acting debut ‘Sulemani Keeda’, had to deal with a girl moving away from him to another city; only then, it was unrequited, and this time it’s somewhat in his hands. Either way, he seems to have mastered the art of not wanting to say goodbye. That perpetual ‘stubborn tragic hero’ sense of longing on his face translates well into Shah’s salty hair and droopy eyes. Shweta Basu Prasad, too, should be on screen a lot more, as should accomplished stage performer Miss Patel, who I always felt has deserved far better (except Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black) than Hindi cinema has offered her. In an ideal world, it’d take far more than 13 minutes for her to identify, process and then acknowledge the unfulfilled hole in her heart. It’s all too quick here, even for a grieving writer like her returning to her roots. Maybe she returned knowing and hoping for this scene, or maybe her reaction was instinctive, a long-lost remnant of the night she wished he had pushed harder.

There is, of course, Shah, who couldn’t quite find Fanny a few years ago in his last-gasp pursuit of fading history. But he finds something here. Enough to finally visualise the effectiveness of a poignant feature-length drama the scene ‘INTERIOR CAFE NIGHT’ belongs to.