By Rahul Desai
The ancestral home is abuzz with activity after years. The walls have ears. Guests pour into the house all day. The middle-aged brothers get nostalgic on the terrace every night. They trade drunken anecdotes about their childhood. Their wives gossip about the in-laws and other wives in the kitchen. Their frisky sons get it on with some of the neighbourhood belles. Couples argue behind closed doors. Secrets unfold in the corridors. Rants jostle for space. The courtyard is never empty. The elders look on. Cups of tea and snacks dot the Lucknowi winter. The preparations are in full swing. The occasion is auspicious. In that sense, Ram Prasad Ki Tehrvi replicates the communal grammar of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding. There are little (North Indian) fires everywhere. A Naseeruddin Shah character, the family patriarch, is the driving force behind this gathering too.
Yet, it says something about the ritualistic nature of middle-class Hinduism that the line between celebratory and sombre is often blurred. The social obligations of death are indistinguishable from that of life: The bloated Bhargava clan is under one roof for a funeral, but their reunion wears the cultural cacophony of a wedding. The old woman of the house (Supriya Pathak) is a widow, but she feels like a bride. Her foreground of grief is at odds with the backdrop of glory. She is struggling to accept the demise of her husband, a renowned piano teacher, yet the music in her home is not of mourning. She can hear the strings of her offspring screeching against each other – the ceremonial tradition of the tehrvi (the 13th and final day of mourning) to free her late husband’s spirit is crushing her own spirit.
Everyone is too busy living. Spending close to two weeks with a past that has morphed into the future is not her idea of togetherness. Her oldest (Manoj Pahwa) is a resentful alcoholic. The next (Vinay Pathak) is a sheepish beta male. The next (Ninad Kamat) is a champion of nothingness. But her youngest (Parambrata Chhattopadhyay) is who she sees as her husband in her own flashbacks. He dared, just like they once did, which is why she doesn’t begrudge his “individualism”: an actress wife (Konkona Sen Sharma), a big-city life, a young marriage, a modern affection.
There’s a lot to like about Ram Prasad Ki Tehrvi. It’s actress Seema Pahwa’s directorial debut, and her theatre roots define the tiny narrative saplings planted on screen. For one, it doesn’t commit to a “genre”. That can be a death knell for most movies, but a non-story about death cannot be forcefitted to suit a tone. One of the opening scenes features an uncle taunting the older sons for reaching Lucknow later than he did – only inches away from the corpse, the insecure men compare arrival times as if their status were being measured by how quickly they dropped everything to be there. Here, we start to expect a quirky behavioral comedy about a middle-Indian family in an awkward situation. When guests arrive to pay their respects, the silence prompts them to ask “how it happened” and the grieving wife keeps repeating the same sequence of events in calibrated tones of shock. None of these moments are played for laughs, but there’s a procedural wryness about them. The filmmaker seems to be distant enough from her own personal experience to notice the ironies of makeshift hospitality – even something as simple as tea-brewing turns into a logistical debate. However, the film soon settles into a melancholic portrait of loss and lament, because the central perspective is that of a parent. This is no satirical indictment of tradition; it is an ode. Baghban briefly comes to mind.
Pahwa’s love for the stage is also reflected in the film’s chamber treatment. She shows an eye for spatial dynamics – the crowded frames, overlapping voices and the throwaway lines feel organic, and the characters melt into their setting. At one point, the physical background of a frame – two wives having an ugly spat – is the narrative foreground; the shot instead focuses on the kids playing carrom at one corner, acting oblivious to the dirty linen being washed in their vicinity. It’s one thing to make a film look like a play, but it’s another to lend a film the emotional dimensions of one. This is where the distinct cinematography comes in. Ram Prasad Ki Tehrvi opens with the camera snaking through the lanes of Lucknow into the dark house, following the faint music of a piano emerging from the bedroom. It’s a long, unbroken take – one of many in the film – as if to mimic the motion of a spirit, a soul, floating through the halls after being separated from its body. The lingering camera is in a way death itself: a recurring template that also manages to evoke the cramped continuity of the house. In one of the film’s best scenes, the old woman watches from behind a pillar as the senior generation of Bhargavas exiting the terrace is followed by the junior generation sneaking towards it – a single take that visually conveys the circularity of adulthood. The camera peeks over her shoulder, panning from one group to the second, as if it were panning from one time of life to another.
For better or worse, the air is shared, the partitions are futile and the stories are forced to dissolve into one another. I often get annoyed with plot points driven by characters conveniently overhearing a private conversation. But the fluid language of the camera affords this film the luxury of such a revelation: everyone wants to be heard in the hope that someone will listen. One woman hears the other in tears, and suddenly it all becomes clear; the epiphany is not forced, it’s the duty of these thin walls. Privacy, in the crowded business of death, is a state of mind. Even in the opening scene, we never really see Ramprasad Bhargava collapse in his bedroom. His wife in the kitchen realizes something is amiss only when his passionate piano-playing hits a false note – a poignant mark of just how seasoned their companionship is. In the maze of a house, they see with their ears.
That’s not to say the film is flawless; it suffers from teething problems. The dramatic fade-to-black transitions and the use of songs, either as a time-lapse or memory device, interrupt the film’s deadpan gaze. The immensely watchable sexual tension between Konkona and Vikrant Massey in every other film is starting to get predictable – their mere presence in the same cast threatens to become a spoiler these days. Most of all, this film has an age problem. In no universe does Manoj Pahwa, who is only two years younger than Supriya Pathak, look like her oldest son. Even Vinay Pathak for that matter. For the first ten minutes, I assumed they were her brothers who called her “Amma” in front of her actual son (Parambrata). Given that Pahwa is the director’s husband, it’s possible that her gaze of him as someone younger than his years lacks objectivity – and the suspension of disbelief demanded of the viewer transcends the Clark-Kent-wearing-glasses variety.
Yet, despite a rushed climax, Supriya Pathak’s stricken face becomes a soothing antidote to the hustle of the rest of the ensemble. Her pain is old, her faith is withered. She holds together the dramedy unfolding in plain view with nothing but vacant stares. The 13 days are in fact her coming-of-age journey: her quiet transition from widow to bride, preparing to marry a future of womanhood unrestrained by identity. We never hear her name, because she is always someone’s mother, sister and aunt. Perhaps she never needed one. If the noisy proximity of a wedding reveals the price of a bloodline, the brooding proximity of a funeral reveals the burden of one.
[This review was originally published in Film Companion]