Sunday, December 8, 2013

Ankhon Dekhi: What the eye sees...

I was lucky enough to catch a screening of Ankhon Dekhi at the South Asian Film Festival in New York and you’ll have to forgive the lack of specifics as far as names go in my review since I have no press materials or even a wikipedia entry to work from. If there is anybody reading this who would like to pass on promotional photos and a cast list, I would be very grateful and will happily edit them in. ETA: I have edited to add in the names of the actors where appropriate.


When I was a little girl, I didn’t understand what it was that businesspeople did all day pushing paper around. As far as I was concerned, they weren’t doing anything useful, like making cars or putting out fires or cooking. Whatever their work was, it seemed imaginary, far less real than the math worksheets I assigned myself for homework. Finance, business, money, math. They were all imaginary numbers games, so why did grownups pretend otherwise? Now, as I’ve gotten older, I know that seven-year old Filmi Girl had a lot of naive ideas about how the world worked--for example, I’m not currently married to Coreys Haim and Feldman--but, sadly, the 2008 global financial crisis proved that she was spot on about the financial world.

And I suspect the protagonist of Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi (which I think you could loosely translate to something like What the Eye Sees) would agree with that young Filmi Girl on that point, too.


Sanjay Mishra is perfectly cast as the very, very odd head of a middle-class family in Delhi. He has a stout, bossy, good-hearted wife (Seema Palwa, who had the audience in stitches) and a troublesome son and daughter. The son (a delightfully gormless Chandrachoor Rai) has a gambling habit and the daughter (Maya Sarao, this actress was wonderful) in love with an alleged womanizer. Meanwhile his younger brother Rishi (Rajat Kapoor) has seemingly disconnected from family life, while his wife suffers under a growing pile of minor annoyances from her sister-in-law and his (100% super-adorable) son is failing at maths. And then there are the cousins and friends and hangers-on making everybody’s lives both more difficult and more loving.

The odd twist to this middle-class story is that events force Sanjay’s bauji to come to a late in life decision that he will only believe what his eyes tell him. At first this is played for comedy, with cheeky cousins needling him about what day it is. “Is today Sunday?” “It could be.” “It could be?! But all the stores are closed, schools are closed. It’s Sunday.” “It could be.” And he is right, technically. It’s Sunday because we all agree it is. There’s no “Sunday” that can be seen.

As bauji gets deeper into his philosophy, he picks up a horde of devotees (who hang around the house shooting the shit, much to his wife’s chagrin and the audience’s amusement) but events within the family eventually force him to deal with the imaginary “real” world of society for one last time.

On the surface, Ankhon Dekhi appears to be yet another one of those My Big Fat Indian Family Indie Films that have exploded in the past few years but it is actually plays out as a refutation of them. A Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana here, a Khosla Ka Ghosla there, comfortable middle-class films playing up an idealized version of comfortable family life; there is nothing inherently wrong with this genre of film and it can be fun to spend a couple of hours with somebody else’s wacky uncles and dopey cousins. But there is also an emptiness to those films that goes unremarked upon in our race from the theater to the mall and home to watch television. Family and love are deeply important in life but is there nothing else? Is the promise of a marriage ceremony, a house, a job giving sperm samples enough to keep a person going? Is that experiencing life or just spinning your wheels and waiting for a pay raise?

And maybe it is enough for some people, some of the time but Bauji is not content. He craves something more from life, spiritually, and is willing to risk ridicule to achieve it but Bauji more than just a laughable, stock "Holy Fool" character. He plays with the type but ultimately remains very, very human, something Sanjay Mishra navigates like the professional he is. Sanjay lets bauji's humanity just shine through and watching him develop patience and compassion--especially for his family--was one of the highlights of the film. There was one scene in particular where a cousin goes into a fugue state and can't stop talking. Bauji just sits and listens to him until he stops. It's an incredible act of patience and caring and one can't imagine the man from the beginning of the film pulling it off.

Ankon Dekhi is a wonderful work from Rajat Kapoor and the cast and crew. There were a lot of scenes just packed to the brim with people doing various things but it never felt jumbled or confusing. The music was nice and fit the film very well. The English subtitles were terrible but even with my rudimentary Hindi, I could tell that the dialogues were sharp and hit their mark. And Rajat had a lot of love for all of the characters, from the tea boy to the math teacher to the sister-in-law.

Rajat did a small question and answer session after the screening of the film and, of course, there was the one embarrassing question from the white guy who clearly owned at least half of the “Eastern Philosophy” books on sale at Barnes & Noble. He wanted a literal explanation of the film’s ending, which Rajat could not--or would not--give to him. And this frustrated Mr. White Guy Buddhist. Is bauji giving up on the material world? No, not as such. Is he saying everything is meaningless? No, just the opposite. So why does the film end ambigulously?

You’ll just have to watch for yourself to find out.

Hopefully coming soon to a theater near you!

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I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

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