By Rahul Desai
Goldfish opens with a 30-something Anamika (Kalki Koechlin) storming back into her childhood home. “Let’s just get through this, shall we?” she hisses. The recipient of her curt greeting is Sadhana Tripathi (Deepti Naval), her mother. The older woman, who lives alone, is in the early stages of dementia; she is no longer as self-sufficient as she’d like. A kitchen fire forces Anamika to return after what seems like years of estrangement. Like most her age, Sadhana is in denial; she claims that her new dictaphone is for the music she teaches, and that her notepad is a calendar. The two never got along. Anamika misses her father, an Englishman who died when she was ten. She resents her mother, a former Hindustani classical vocalist who was never prepared for the life she chose – a love marriage, an alien country, loneliness, and (single) parenthood.
At the onset of the pandemic, Anamika finds herself stranded between not only the past and the future, but also Western pragmatism and Indian idealism. For ‘Ana’ Fields, the British-born academic with financial problems, there is no time for sentimentality – she plans to mortgage the house, put her mother in specialized care and take a job in Basel. But for ‘Miku,’ the second-generation immigrant with unresolved trauma, perhaps Sadhana is better off in the extended joint family that is her ethnic London neighbourhood. The prodigal daughter senses that, for the South Asian community that has protected and sustained Sadhana, she is a foreign villain who has no qualms abandoning a parent. She is here to “wrap things up,” a term that reduces the plurality of baggage to the singularity of a suitcase.
Pushan Kripalani’s drama is a moving ode to the layered dynamics of caregiving. So much of the commitment is determined by the heritage of duty. That the roles between parent and child are reversed is a given; that life cycles morph into the cycle of life is inevitable. But Anamika’s struggle is rooted in the chasm between cultural identity and human empathy– she doesn’t want her decision to be an act of revenge against a woman who was a distant mother. The title of the film alludes to this dichotomy of cruelty. “Goldfish” is something Anamika might use to mock her mother’s fading memory, but it also refers to a childhood incident featuring Sadhana’s coldness and a dead pet. It’s the sort of metaphor that lays bare the tragedy of generational angst: When people grow old and frail, their adult children are expected to forget the toxicities of parenting and behave as if nothing ever happened. It’s simply assumed that dependence is the cure for dysfunction. Being helpless becomes a license to bury broken memories.
Anamika, too, cannot fathom that she is obligated to take charge by virtue of being a daughter. She cannot handle the fact that, soon, she will be the only one who remembers their shared frictions; she might be the only one left with grudges, as well as the ability to hold them. As a result, the mother-daughter exchanges are laced with Ana’s desperation to keep their history alive – she’s almost hoping for Sadhana to be sorry for mistakes that are losing context. Kalki Koechlin does a wonderful job of juggling time with tide. It’s a turn ripe with both trust and betrayal, bringing to mind her role in Waiting (2015), a story about the unlikely bond between a young woman and old man in the throes of pre-grief.
That Sadhana’s shame emerges through her illness like the night sun breaking through the clouds – at one point, she apologizes without knowing why – is a testament to Deepti Naval’s remarkable performance. She plays a person trying to recognize the vagaries of regret. Her character is at once the psychologically fractured protagonist of The Father (2020) and the morally shattered protagonist of The Lost Daughter (2021). You can tell that Sadhana might have used postpartum depression as a front for reluctant motherhood, and that her condition is now denying Anamika the closure she deserves. You can also tell that Sadhana is striving to reclaim their language of separation. It’s a role marked with connotations, one that allows the film to eschew flashbacks in favour of tensely-worded reckonings. Every time they hurl hurtful sentences at each other, Sadhana’s heartbreaking admission – that “words are going” – shapes the slightest of intonations. She wants to sound windy, but it takes her a while to realize that her tree is naturally losing its leaves.
Kripalani’s film-making is economical and dry – no score; no narrative offshoots; cut-to-black transitions that serve as blank canvas for Anamika’s grief – almost as if it’s daring us to notice the casual decomposition of a mindscape. We don’t see what the characters see; we see what the world sees. The feeling is derived from the sober unfolding of a tragedy, a bit like a Mike Leigh or Ken Loach movie, where the procedural nature of society refuses to dignify the distinctions of storytelling. Life continues, either way. Like the background: The lockdown is about to put everyone in a suspended state of remembering and nostalgia. As a result, someone like Sadhana isn’t too out of place in her surroundings. Then there are the neighbours, most of whom are struggling to conflate the idea of seniority with purpose – the retired nurse Laxmi (a terrific Bharti Patel), in particular, signifies the sort of invisible film that speaks directly to Sadhana’s fate.
Then there are the little details, like a fox appearing in the unruly backyard every time Sadhana lights her husband’s favourite cigarette. Or the muscle-memory of a British routine (“Tea at 4?”) bridging the void between mother and daughter. Or the way Sadhana recalls “incense” as the first English word she learnt from her late husband – he meant it as an aroma, but given their situation, it could just as well have meant anger. Or even something as simple as Sadhana’s handwriting – her bookkeeping gets more ineligible with every page. It’s a pictorial snapshot of dementia, where the mind and the body enter a state of perpetual divorce.
Most of all, Goldfish finds emotion in the nonchalance of life. It gets that mundanity is often the manifestation of intimacy. As in the case of Kripalani’s debut, The Threshold (2015), seemingly ordinary actions – the packing of a bag, the draping of a sari, the careful brewing of tea – reveal the link between vulnerability and companionship. A crumbling marriage in The Threshold was anchored by the illness of co-dependence: A middle-aged man fails to cook an egg without his wife, while a woman fails to shut a suitcase without her husband’s help. The two films share a universe of sorts, in that the domestic traits of togetherness don’t look different from the symptoms of dementia. Long-time reliance – otherwise considered a sign of stability and romance – is crippling. In Goldfish, a woman loses her agency and wanders through the ruins of unprocessed guilt. But she is discovered, and rediscovered, by a daughter who returns. And just like that, forgetting becomes a metaphor for forgiving.