By RAHUL DESAI
It takes a great deal for an Indian alpha male to recognise that the concept of a family extends beyond co-existence and financial responsibilities; that the creation of one is more than merely a bullet point in life’s quintessential to-do list.
Many measure their own worth by their ability to provide – economically, and not emotionally – for their wives and children. If the wife can splurge a bit on the kids, and if the kids grow up fairly convincingly so that they can be packed off at the right time, life can be classified as a mission accomplished. An efficient, cost-effective mission.
If these men can afford to be condescending every few nights, while reminding the lady who the man of the house is and how her lifestyle is sustained, their duties are on course to being methodically fulfilled.
If they can afford to ponder about their sacrifices after the third peg of whiskey, life’s plan is on course.
If they can afford to rant about how hard they work to secure a comfortable future, their job is almost done.
They look towards this ‘future’ as if it were a particular segment or chapter of life – one that is subject to age, numbers and goals achieved. Perhaps for some, the future begins at 65, but if they haven’t earned enough by then, it is pushed ahead to 70. But the future, really, is a subjective term. It actually happens every second of every hour.
Many such futures are sleepwalked through to arrive at a point of satisfaction: a point where it’s possible to look back, instead of looking forward. And while working towards this pre-planned chapter – one that will invariably involve mountains, beaches and the ideal fantasy of life away from the bustle – it’s the present that often gets compromised.
These patriarchal minds forget to live while earning a living. And if it hasn’t already happened, they lose the trust and confidence of their partners along the way.
Many housewives and mothers, who have worked no lesser to make a home out of their house, will wonder if the men they married remember how to love – and live – anymore; if they know what it is to sit down and take a breather; if they would want to experience what fresh air and flowers feel like. Can they even laugh anymore without an agenda?
While grumbling their way to retirement, some men feel this growing disillusionment of their partners. Like Rajit Kapoor’s gruff Delhi-businessman-finished-with-duties character, Raj, in ‘The Threshold’, they can probably see it coming. And ever so slowly, they deliberately refuse to become self-sufficient. They insist on depending on their partners for the smallest of things.
In order to keep them close, they decide to need them.
Perhaps they know that when the curtains come down on their careers, and when home will be the only resort, the wife becomes the provider – of whatever little life and time that remains.
Raj is the kind of man who has never felt the need to cook, clean or understand the mechanism of a kitchen space – or has perhaps not chosen to. Because if he did, his wife Rinku (Neena Gupta) would feel utterly useless. If he did get ‘domesticated’, their relationship would be nothing without the give-and-take dimension to it. He’d rather not be entirely independent at home, just as she isn’t entirely independent in the world outside.
There’s a certain enduring charm when full-grown adults well past their prime choose to rely on their partners. It’s their way of sharing life.
Therefore, Raj wants to depend on her for that well-cooked omelette, and he wants her to do his tie every morning. Even if he gets late, he wants to ask her irritatedly where his socks are placed.
These are probably the only moments he feels cared for, and even loved, in his own selfish way. He wants her to know that he does need her, ever so often, in his own selfish way. Even if they have become habits to each other, he wants her to be one he can’t ever get rid of.
Because loneliness is always a bitter pill to swallow.
And if he does everything on his own, she might just up and go.
As it turns out, Rinku still wants to up and go. On the morning after their only son’s wedding, up in their cosy cabin in the hills that he has purchased with his life savings, she tells him that she is leaving him. Just before the chapter – which he considers their last and most liberating – is about to begin.
Through Pushan Kripalani’s rather moving chamber piece, Raj goes through various stages of denial.
He is amused at first. Clearly, she hasn’t thought anything through. She isn’t even capable of thinking anything through. He calls her stupid, and other variations of the word, and attempts to guilt her with the usual “I did this for you” speech. In a way, he is right. And yet, he is not.
Then, he gets impatient. The way he holds her suggests that he hasn’t been the most peace-loving partner. He wants to know why. He knows that there isn’t really one answer.
In her social circles (and not his, because he isn’t one to humour strangers), they’ve probably been known as that necessary couple: the arrogant, loud-mouthed, domineering husband with a sweet, submissive, tolerant wife. “How does she tolerate the guy? – She deserves better! – Only she can turn him into a puppy – At least somebody understands him!” She was, and is, perhaps the only one who can run him through all his gears.
And then, he gets angry. He feels cheated. How dare she even think of a life without him, and abandon him at such an advanced age? Why couldn’t she do this earlier in life? All through, Raj seems to believe that this could just be a passing phase of hers. A mood. A silly stunt. She’s reacting on a whim.
And finally, when she remains adamant, it dawns upon Raj.
He is horrified by the reality of it all. He could be alone in less than a day. Her presence, which he had always taken for granted, isn’t guaranteed anymore. He feels helpless. He decides to need her more. He dives into the freezing stream of water and catches a cold. He wants to be reckless only so she can stop him. He wants to see if she still cares. He wants that hot mug of tea from her. He wants her to give him warm clothes. He wants her to take care of him again.
It’s not often that adults in this part of the world dare to venture into the dark unknown. Not many of them experience the vortex of emotions involved in a ‘break-up’ phone call, or that dreaded coffee shop meeting. Many of them choose to live on autopilot, instead of actually having that conversation. They’d rather live in separate rooms, if it means not having to deal with countless questions and societal judgments.
Just like marriage was a legal necessity, the concept of divorce becomes an unnecessary legal formality.
More than anything, it’s the idea – and the stigma – of loneliness that is terrifying. Even a hazy nauseating figure at the other corner of a large house is a reassuring figure, at an advanced age.
Raj is, throughout this film, the guy on the coffee table who can’t seem to understand what went wrong. And Rinku, repeatedly, stops short of telling him, “It’s not you. It’s me.” She knows it’s him too. Perhaps more than it’s her. But she can’t possibly put that in words.
She even gives him the permission to tell ‘them’ that it’s her fault. His reasoning with her hits an absolute dead end here. She doesn’t even care about what people say anymore.
She really must be serious.
There is always a short span of time between the revelation (and absorption) and the actual moment of separation.
This phase, where minds begin to whir and time slows down to a painful sequence of hurtful moments, is when a human being feels more alive – and dead – than ever before. Every second of agony feels like a different kind of agony, all happening simultaneously, and all for the first time. Knots in the stomach, sinking hearts, bile, vomiting sensations – these are the many stages of acceptance.
These are pieces of the heart being dismantled. Kripalani crafts an entire film chronicling this disquieting phase. The gap between the possible and the inevitable.
We see – and live through – the disunion of a habitual couple, over a period of one night, in an environment alien to them. Perhaps it is this new atmosphere that even gives Rinku the strength to propose the move.
It is striking to see how even adults deal with heartbreak with a similar palette of reactions. Rajit Kapoor, one of the finest Indian theatre veterans of this era, drags us with him through the whole gamut of familiar emotions.
He makes us side with him even though he is the lesser being in this. Eventually, it’s his restraint that makes us want to hold him tight and tell him it’ll be okay. He makes us empathise with him like he is the only victim; his is a most natural representation of shock and egomania.
The filmmaker understands what the last straw will be, in the case of a man like him.
Breaking down is unheard of, and that is exactly what will tip us – but probably not Rinku – over the edge. And when he does let go, it will be, both, punishing and cathartic.
Neena Gupta expresses so much about their invisible backstory with her face; her moments of silence, speechlessness, her irritation, and irrational impulses to bolt out; her guilt when she sits down near him, trying to understand why he wants her to stay.
The way she can’t even look into his eyes when she speaks, tells us plenty about what used to happen when she dared to challenge his authority back in Delhi.
One can even notice the fear in her eyes when she is told that they aren’t as financially sorted as she was led to believe. And that ‘their’ money isn’t theirs anymore.
In a way, she does a Raj too, by asking mournfully if they’ve become so petty that money has become the bargaining point. Deep inside, she frets about his unstable future. And, in turn, hers. She hasn’t even considered the possibility that he won’t be paying for this process of leaving him. She hasn’t considered the possibility of a life without money – or a man to provide this money.
Her dependence is blatant, but so is his, especially when she watches him fumble with a frying pan to cook her dinner. Knowing him, he probably wants her to see how helpless he is in the kitchen – so that she stays. He wants her to know that he may set the house on fire without her. This is his way of reaching out to her, until he really has to.
And she winces, and feels horrible, less about the burnt toast, and more about the fact that he is careless without her. And that she, too, is careless without him. But it must be done.
The way she reacts isn’t entirely mature, and would have even provided for moments of endearment back in the good days. Her stubbornness would have seemed adorable to Raj in happier times. He’d burst out laughing at her pouty, inexperienced face back then. But the adamance is like an unerring villain – the right kind of villain – in this current phase.
You’d think she was already contemplating it, and was probably pushed over the edge by something as flaky as the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ film. And maybe, at this moment, away from everyone they ever knew, away from the son they brought up, away from the life he so carelessly and carefully built for them, a movie was all she needed.
(‘The Threshold’ screened as part of the JioMAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2015)