By Rachit Raj
What would a story look life if its protagonist was a silent, immovable building? Director Dar Gai’s Teen Aur Aadha tries to flesh out a story that has a building as its protagonist. The film is structured as a three-part narrative, each documenting different phases in the life of this building as we move from pre-Independence India to the day when Sachin Tendulkar retired from international cricket.
The beauty of the narrative, though, lies in the abstract sense of familiarity that lives in the walls. Over the course of three stories, the look of the walls changes in ways that makes it hard to see them as the same structure. In the first story, set in the backdrop of a young boy (probably reflective of the building’s youth) and his grandfather, the house is well lit by natural light. The walls seem fresh, as if enjoying the cool breeze that kisses its surface. The conversation between the little boy and his grandfather is equally simplistic. The old man, awaiting his death, imparts simple lessons of life to his grandson. The kid is attentive and obedient, but much like the walls he is surrounded by, he lacks the conviction that would help him stand out. The story reeks of a possibility of a tragedy. After all, what is old age but an endless wait of that one moment when life becomes a flat line on a machine?
Teen aur Aadha, though, ensures that its focus remains away from the humans that the camera follows. As the first story ends, one realizes that it is not these characters that matter. It is the experience of their life as witnessed by the silent breaths of the walls that stand still, living with us through the thick and thins of life.
The next story, set in the 1970’s (conveyed to us with the commentary of a Test Match involving Joel Garner and Sunil Gavaskar) has a grimmer look to it. Deprived of the enthusiasm that defines a human in their childhood, this section of the film is more about the self than the other. Both the characters Sulekha (Zoya Hussain) and Nataraj (Jim Sarbh) are invested in themselves more than anyone else in their lives. The building, now a brothel, is witnessing its darkest phase. Much like the characters in this story, the building is delving in the dark truth of its own reality. The walls are cracked, and there is a peculiar sense of façade in every act that surrounds the building. Nataraj leaves the balloons he got for his younger brother away from the building, well aware that the darkness that ensues this building does not have a space for the colours of a balloon.
The narrative here is similar to Memories of My Melancholic Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In that novella, the man is a ninety-year-old man who disguises his need for a conversation by an urge to have sex. Similarly, what Nataraj truly wishes for is someone with whom he can speak his mind. At one point in the narrative, he seems to be blabbering to himself, the presence of Sulekha being a coincidence that has no bearing to his tryst with prostitutes.
Sulekha, on the other hand, is playing a game of her own. Even in the profession of a prostitute she is making sure that she holds all the cards. She is no Umrao Jaan who would fall weak in front of a man who is compassionate towards her. She knows her job, but more importantly she has found a way to demand respect in the act of having sex. Much like the walls of the brothel that is her home, she accommodates the details of her backstory according to the changing trends of life. That, for Sulekha, becomes a way to hold on to herself in a profession where many lose themselves to clients and their violent demands.
Adaptability gives Sulekha the ability to survive, a trait she shares with the building that continues to live long past its shady days of youth. We see the building again a few decades later, a November morning in 2013 that sees an elderly couple living in this place that is now their home. The walls have a perfectly coated layer of lie, hiding the cracks of its days of being a brothel. After all, like the woman who now lives here with her husband, hiding an essential part of itself is the only way for these walls to live past those blurry years. The couple, though, is past the age where hidden truths can truly hamper a relationship. Their love has seen many dry months of summers to be jolted by an untold secret. There is a sense of comfort in their act of making love. They know each other. The beauty of familiarity makes their love story a sight to behold. They reminisce about old days of their youth, but even at seventy (just a little older than independent India in 2013) they are able to find that youthful lover in them who brightened by the very sight of their partner beside them. Over the years they have developed an appetite for being surprised by their partners and loving them for what they have evolved into.
Teen Aur Aadha ends without a sense of closure, for there is no closure for its protagonist. The building – the walls – will remain the silent spectators of stories that unfold within these four walls. It does not matter if that little kid grew into what his grandfather dreamt him to be; it does not matter if Sulekha ever found a way out of the brothel; or whether the old couple died together, hand-in-hand, or did one leave the other for a long, lonely wait for the inevitable end. The stories that are caged in these walls do not need a closure, for they are nothing but a small part of a greater narrative. They speak of a culture that has lived past darkness and found a way into light – a protagonist that experiences life without ever having a life of its own.
[Read more of the author’s work on his blog here]