By Poulomi Das
Popular culture today seems preoccupied with dissecting the whims of the young. Song after song cry themselves hoarse about the loneliness of the younger generation, movies are made on their dating issues and books are devoted to their existential crises. It’s as if youth is not just a stage in life but the point of life itself.
It’s this obsession with the young that triggered director-writer Tanuja Chandra (50) to make her two elderly aunts — Aunty Radha (93) and Aunty Sudha (86) — the subjects of her new documentary. “There seems to be a misconception that only the young can bring value to the world, when, in fact, a lived experience of 80-90 years is almost limitless in what it can teach us,” says Chandra. By training her lens on these unlikely protagonists in the restlessly pleasant Aunty Sudha, Aunty Radha, Chandra goes against convention. She captures two single women at a juncture in their lives when the world usually leaves them out of the picture. In doing so, Chandra puts forward a persuasive question: What does a life wholly unconcerned with cultivating an agreeable impression for the benefit of others really look like?
In the ensuing 48 minutes of the documentary, which premièred at the Madrid International Film Festival last month, Chandra eloquently posits her two paternal aunts — who, in her words, “cater to no one and listen to no one” — as the answer to that question.
It opens with Chandra visiting the village for the first time in many years. It’s a compelling juxtaposition of the richness of lives led by the young and the old: In theory, Chandra, who belongs to a much younger generation, is supposed to have all the time in the world and be better equipped to lead a more fulfilling life. And yet, it is her elderly aunts who don’t fall prey to the myriad burdens of survival.
The undeniable highlight of Aunty Sudha, Aunty Radha remains its two eponymous subjects, complemented by Chandra’s razor-sharp insistence on letting the viewer acquaint themselves with the lives of her aunts through their conflicting personalities, and not the other way round. Aunty Radha, the elder of the two, is an introverted, fuss-free and occasionally surprises with her perspicacity. Aunty Sudha is her polar opposite: She is a dominating presence, a stickler for perfection (their cook complains about being scolded daily for not matching up to her standards), and boasts an enviable collection of saris (the scene where she refuses to lend her blue sari to her sister, who, in turn, complains to Chandra about her selfishness alone is worth the price of admission).
The camera quietly observes their daily routine (which includes Aunty Sudha bleakly reading out comical newspaper headlines to her sister), effectively allowing the viewer a front-row seat to their distinctive quirks. If Aunty Radha harbours a dream of building a small fountain in the midst of their blooming garden, Aunty Sudha eats chocolates every night in order to induce sleep. The sisters freely talk about the loneliness of their former lives and approach death like a school project (“I want a swift, sudden death,” Aunty Radha announces, before admitting that she often worries about her elder sister going first).
It’s admirable how Chandra tackles urgent themes that are embedded in the layers of the portrait she paints of the gentle, unbreakable bond between two codependent sisters, who are at once each other’s crutches and a catalyst for the other’s liberation. Aunty Sudha, Aunty Radha doesn’t stop at documenting two lives that exist without the interference of the internet and which is in danger of being forgotten. It is also a riveting snapshot of female freedom.
It says in as many words that two women can truly begin to experience freedom when their life is on the verge of ending; when they are, at last, untethered by filial responsibilities. Being fully present in the moment seems to be their only target. More important, the film acknowledges that this freedom is impossible to attain without other women. Aunty Sudha, Aunty Radha is then, foremost, a record of the ultimate female fantasy of sisterhood as a way of life. Perhaps youth is wasted on the young.
[Poulomi Das is a freelance film and pop culture writer based in Mumbai]