The wondrous alchemy of compassionate bonds

‘Ahare Mon’ could roughly translate as ‘poor heart!’, but it would be a poor translation! Because ‘mon’ stands for both mind and heart, for mind-states as well as feeling. Dealing with ‘mon’ is thus a tricky affair that only the most assured can pull off with success. Pratim D. Gupta has.

When Ahare Mon announced itself as “the new film from the writer-director of Machher Jhol“, I was immediately curious. I had liked the film last year. It was also special to me: it was the first Bangla film that I had (unintentionally) watched with my daughter in a theatre. And I could plainly see that even her 5 year-old self could sense the filial bond at the core of this “food-themed film”. The film in fact stayed with her for a while: having her own occasional machher jhol-bhat after returning home from school in the following weeks, she would remember the attractive variations of it that she had seen on the big screen!

In Ahare Mon, Pratim D. Gupta serves up a very different dish. He gives us four stories that run parallel to each other, coming together in a surprise twist at the end of the film. They are about unusual relationships — between a frequent flyer and an immigration officer, a dying teenager with her screen idol, two charming crooks from different socio-economic backgrounds, and two inmates of an old-age home.

The connection at the end is not organic – in that, plot-wise, two pairs of stories connect, not all the four together. But the structural unity of the plot is not the point here. What is more important is the connect at a more philosophical level – in the nature of human bonding between the characters – as different shades of love at different stages of life are explored.

Love Actually & Life in a Metro

While watching Ahare Mon, I couldn’t help but remember two much-loved films from the last decade — Richard Curtis’s  Love Actually (2003), and Anurag Basu’s Life in a Metro (2007). Linked love stories and an ensemble cast are what come to mind while thinking of them. Only here, they are linked more by understanding and compassion than love.

The ensemble part is common to all the three films – English, Hindi and Bengali. But there are subtle, though important, differences of emphases. Love Actually, coming in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, stressed the value of love over hate right in the opening voice over by David (Hugh Grant), who insisted “if you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around”; and the setting being Christmas in London, the film was redolent of all kinds of family reunions. Life in a Metro, on the other hand, true to its title, was as much about the city of Mumbai and the demands it exacted upon its inhabitants as it was about the love relationships between them. The hypocrisies and betrayals in many of those relationships, and the hurt and depression (including a suicidal attempt) it engendered, seemed to stem as much from the stresses of life in a globalised, post-millennial mega city as from failed inter-personal dynamics. As Irfan Khan’s Monty tells Konkona Sen Sharma’s Shruti at a trailer-worthy moment in the film: “Yeh sheher hume jitna deta hai, badle mein use kayi zyada humse le leta hain” (this city takes much more than what it gives us).

 Compassion over chemistry

In Ahare Mon, it is difficult to choose a favourite among the stories, thanks to pitch-perfect performances by an incredibly talented cast. Most of them have worked in the director’s previous films, and bring a comfortable ease to the characters they portray. Chitrangada Chakraborty makes a striking debut as the terminally ill Titli madly in love with superstar Dev. Ritwick Chakraborty is adorable as the seasoned crook Michael Tendulkar who finds a surprising mate in Parno Mitra’s Suzie Q. There is a bubbly innocence about their bond that is missing even in the teenager’s story, as imminent death overshadows that tale.

Anjan Dutta and Mamata Shankar bring a measured mellowness to the old age home inmates they portray, rejected by their children and discovering a sudden intimacy with each other. The actors had first come together in Mrinal Sen’s Kharij (‘The Case is Closed’) way back in 1982, and went on to co-star in several other films in the next four decades.

It is admirable to see how their quiet chemistry has in no way waned with time, and how they continue to bring uniqueness to every character that they portray. Apart from habitually acting (and singing) in his own directorial ventures, Dutta has given sterling performances in recent Srijit Mukherjee films – Nirbaak (2015) and Uma (2018) – in both of which he steals the show. In Machher Jhol, Mamata Shankar was memorable as the celebrity chef Dev D’s unconventional and deeply understanding mother, who, in a total reversal of the oedipal bond, urges her son to leave her and everything he knows (and is bored of) to pursue his dream of becoming a chef in Paris; while at the same time, maintaining a tough balancing act of befriending and supporting his young abandoned wife. In Ahare Mon, she gives dignity and pathos to Charulata Dutta, a character who, like her famous literary namesake (after whom she was named by her father), had found true love outside marriage. She is able to confide this long held secret only to Barun Babu, the character played by Anjan Dutta.

Though these stories are all memorable, the one that is etched on my mind is the one featuring Paoli Dam (as Ramona) and Adil Hussain (as Purnendu Pahari). One would imagine there is very little in a middle-aged immigration officer living a staid life that can attract a young successful independent woman who earns well, travels often, and lives life on her own terms. But she gets to like him when, after an initial argument, sensing his mistake, he smilingly apologises and praises her for her forthrightness. Subsequently, they interact frequently owing to her travels; and she comes to enjoy them to the point that she manoeuvres the queue in order to ensure that he interviews her. He is drawn in turn to her beauty and confidence. When he writes three letters to her in three weeks, she is forced to confront him. The scene where she does so is the most poignant in the film: they open up to each other about aspects of their lives that they had never shared before. They are able to do that because of mutual empathy and compassion. This happens just before she leaves for Bombay, owing to a job transfer, and hopes to begin a new life with a partner. But not before she gives him a generous parting gift. “Amader modhye ek joner aar eka thaka holo na” (One of us won’t have to live alone any more), says Purnendu, both disappointed for losing her and overwhelmed by her gesture.

Adil Hussain is unforgettable as the scheduled caste immigration officer, burdened early in life with an ailing widowed mother and doomed to loneliness. Love comes in his life twice, many years apart, with women he can’t afford to have a future. But both cherish him, particularly his beautifully written letters.

The film’s tagline says, “for those who have waited in love and loved in wait.” An integral part of that kind of relationship, for an earlier generation, was the letter; hence, predictably, they play an important role in the life of two older people. However, interestingly, not a single letter is read out in the film, though we see them being written and received, waited for and reflected on.

Purnendu has a way with words. And he is given the best lines in the film. In that well-known opening of Love Actually mentioned earlier, David says, “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think of the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport” – because of the love that people spontaneously display while welcoming their dear ones. Purnendu is moved to a similar reflection during a lunch conversation with his colleagues when they all complain about their dull jobs. Unlike them, he likes his job, he says; loves seeing the play of emotions on the travellers’ faces: all excited and perked up when they are about to travel, in anticipation of adventures ahead; and somewhat tired but satisfied while returning, enriched by new experiences.

It is this ability of his to enter other people’s lives that makes him extraordinary. It is also the reason why he genuinely understands and accepts, twice in his life, why the woman he loves can never be his. It is this compassion for another human being that is at the heart of his story. The chemistry is just a part of it.

Compassion is actually at the very heart of the film itself. It is not about love. It is about compassion for people in love. It’s a very fine distinction that many might miss. What this film primarily shows, through its stories, is a deep understanding between people, one of whom is in love with someone else. It is what makes Barun Babu pledge himself to find Charulata’s lost love; Titli’s elderly hospital-room inmates to share her obsession about Dev and her speculations about death; and even the young crooks to plan a “blockbuster” steal to help a poor family.

Romantic love has been done to death in films – probably because they are the only place where it still exists. It is time that filmmakers opened their eyes and imagination to the beauty of other human bonds that go a long way in making life bearable.

Competing with Sanju

Urging his audiences on Twitter last week to go watch his new film, director Pratim D. Gupta had said: “If we Bengali film makers don’t get audiences in the first weekend, we’ll be pulverized by the Sanjus of the world in coming weeks.” There is palpable anxiety there, anticipating an almost David-Goliath tussle in the box-office with Rajkumar Hirani. But the anxiety is misplaced. I think those who believe in and enjoy watching sensitive films – especially the sensitive portrayal of relationships – will flock to see this film, Sanju or no Sanju. I did. And I look forward to Pratim’s next!