Three actors and a love story
Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore in Apur Sansar
Losing a beloved actor is at times akin to losing a friend.Over time, we grow accustomed to their expressions and gestures. The best performers convince us of even more. We come to feel we know how they think. Unlike the people we see in real life, stars sometimes seem far more open to scrutiny. It might well be hard to fully mourn the deaths of those we have never met, but in 2020, a year defined by loss, I found myself oddly devastated by the passing of three actors I adore: Irrfan Khan, Rishi Kapoor and Soumitra Chatterjee. For me, their films often enriched more than they entertained.
Irrfan Khan was 53 when he passed away on April 29th. Rishi Kapoor was 67 when he died a day later. Wanting to explain my sorrow to myself, I decided to watch The Lunchbox (2013) and Kapoor & Sons (2016) again. My private tribute soon turned into catharsis. I found myself tearing up often. In Lunchbox, Khan’s character is on the cusp of retirement. Khan had died before he could even reach Saajan Fernandes’ age. Similarly, Kapoor plays a spirited 89-year-old grandfather, Dadu, in Kapoor & Sons. I wondered if these two roles had inadvertently helped the actors satisfy their appetite for life.
Even at 85, Soumitra Chatterjee was more prolific than both Kapoor and Khan. I, however, best knew him as Apu, the hero of my favourite film, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959). Even though I had seen this third instalment of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy countless times, I felt compelled to repeat my newfound ritual. Watching the film in November, a few days after Chatterjee had died, I thought it was no less contemporary than Lunchbox and Kapoor & Sons. Significantly, I thought all three films were informing our present crises. They could together help us cope with 2020.
Actors such as Khan, Kapoor and Chatterjee make it easy to map your life against those of characters such as Saajan, Dadu and Apu. Seeing them inhabit so comfortably the skin of another person, it becomes easier for audiences to place themselves in the shoes of those they invent. My immersion is mostly unhindered when I watch these stars perform. They remove their personhood so completely from their performances, I start taking the grief and joy of their characters personally. I want to solve their problems, I want to cheer their victories, and most importantly, I want the world to be kinder to them.
Apu, Saajan and Dadu all belong to different generations, but like us, they are all seen grappling with an outside that is sometimes hard to understand and always impossible to control. When faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, they display an everyday heroism which we ought to emulate today. As 2020 leaves everything upturned, films such as Apur Sansar, Lunchbox and Kapoor & Sons can help improve our mood, yes, but if watched closely, they can also be tools we could use to better ourselves.
Letters of recommendation are often things of joy. They are, of course, proof of accomplishments, of faith someone is putting in you, but for the hopeful and unemployed, these letters are made precious by the possibilities they afford, not the weight of sentimentality. Apur Sansar opens with Apu reading one such letter a professor has written for him. Apu, we are told, is ‘sensitive, conscientious and diligent’. The professor is demonstrably fond of Apu. He wants him to graduate, but Apu, perched precariously between paucity and poverty, says he does not have the money to pay the fee colleges demand. The professor asks him to keep writing. Apu’s talent, we learn, is somewhat obvious.
There are holes in Apu’s curtain and undershirt. He lives in a Calcutta tenement; a room Delhiites would identify as a barsati. He pawns his books to pay rent. He is either overqualified for work that is available, or not qualified enough. Watching the doors of schools and factories close on Apu, those who have lost their jobs to the pandemic might well think of him as familiar, but Apu is also doubly dispossessed. He has neither savings nor family. His father died when he was 10 and his mother passed when he was 17. Strangely, however, Apu never panders to our pity. He delights in the rain. He plays the flute. A story he wrote will soon be published by a literary journal. He keeps that letter of acceptance close, peeking at it when riding the tram. His loneliness seems more like solitude.
Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee in Apur Sansar), Saajan (Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox) and Dadu (Rishi Kapoor in Kapoor & Sons) belong to different generations, but like us, they grapple with an outside that is sometimes hard to understand and always impossible to control
As Apu pushes away despair, he upsets our newfound 2020 formulae that invariably equate adversity and tragedy. When Pulu, Apu’s best friend, interrupts his isolation by treating him to a restaurant meal and a play, Apu feels elated. Rather than moan to Pulu about his problems, Apu says his struggle, like his imagination and education, has become a means for him to shed his backwardness. Small things, he adds, have the ability to move him. He doesn’t want to escape. He wants to live. Rather than become a clerk, Apu says he’d much rather follow in the footsteps of Goethe, Dickens and Dostoevsky.
There’s something altogether infectious about Apu’s youthful optimism. It almost convinces you that the comforts of art and literature can guard one against the worst of misfortunes. When Pulu takes him to his village in Khulna, now in Bangladesh, Apu gives him his novel’s manuscript to read. Writers need readers, and seeing Apu fiddle and fidget while waiting for feedback, one feels he is looking for both approval and understanding. Apu might be sufficient despite his scarcity, but the glee on his face when Pulu extends his hand to congratulate him is proof of an obvious truth:Happiness feels better when shared.
Things take a strange turn in Khulna. Pulu’s cousin, Aparna, is left stranded at the altar after it turns out that her groom is mentally unstable. When Apu steps in to take his place, he feels he is doing something grand, something great, but once the headiness of heroism has passed, the realisation of his penury hits home. Aparna puts him at ease by telling him that they will suffer and survive together.
Both Apu and Aparna are migrants. Having moved from rural Bengal to Calcutta, they have exchanged networks of community for a life where ends are often hard to meet. They now only have each other. Seeing Apu longingly gaze at Aparna while playing with her hairpin, we instantly understand that their relationship has exceeded the confines of duty and responsibility. They are a couple in love. Even though they continue to live in Apu’s tenement, the house comes to feel larger after Aparna has made it home. The door now has a nameplate. The torn curtain has been replaced by a floral one. She smacks his bum early in the morning. They fan each other when they eat. He teaches her the English alphabet.
In a year when homes became workplaces, when family substituted colleagues, Apu and Aparna’s domestic life is, effectively, a template. Their companionship is underpinned by an abiding affection and their togetherness defined by genuine playfulness. They don’t yearn for more space. They find satisfaction in the abundance of their marriage. When a pregnant Aparna leaves for Khulna, she leaves Apu with several instructions.The anxiety of separation manifests on his face the way trauma would.
Apu is inconsolable when he learns that Aparna has died during childbirth. The suddenness of loss amplifies its magnitude. The pandemic has shown us that deaths without farewells are harder to process, and for Apu, Aparna’s passing, too, is somewhat abstract. The only thing tangible is the finality of her absence. Grief, for him, is quicksand. He is catatonic when he waits for a train to run him over. With Aparna, Apu no longer had reason to feel alone. Without her, he has to confront orphanhood all over again. Her death is something he must atone. He leaves Calcutta and throws away his manuscript.
Apu blames his son, Kajal, for Aparna’s death. It takes him five years to forgive the child. When he finally returns to Khulna, he is met with a boy whose mischief borders on menace. The scene where he is finally able to lure Kajal to come away with him is now the stuff of cinematic lore and legend, but in 2020, this conciliation underscores the importance of reciprocity. Watching Apu walk into the distance with Kajal on his shoulders, the both of them smiling heartily for the first time in years, one is reminded that it’s only in the arms of those we love that the pain of our wounds might start to dull.
When Aparna is in Khulna, she writes Apu a letter every week. He reads and rereads them every time he finds a moment of quiet. Letters come to fill the vacuum of Aparna’s absence. Much like sudden texts that interrupt our social isolation, they are affirmations of affection, reminders that love is a constant. In Ritesh Batra’s Lunchbox, letters do something strange. They are not the effects of affinity; they are, instead, its cause. Once she realises the food she prepares for her husband is being delivered to someone else, Ila, a housewife, starts writing letters to the man who is eating lunch that wasn’t cooked for him. The first letters he writes back are terse, but the lunchbox he returns is empty.
Saajan Fernandes is a bit of a crotchety grump. He often scolds the children who play outside his Bandra home. Though he has been pushing files in a government office for 35 years, he never speaks to his colleagues. Having opted for an early retirement, he is asked to hand over his responsibilities to a junior colleague, but he actively avoids this enthusiastic apprentice. When he tells him his wife is dead, he does so without sentiment.
Saajan eats lunch by himself. He orders his dinners in. He fiercely protects his aloneness. Ila’s letters challenge the isolation he invents. Her candour warrants response.
The lockdown has perhaps been hardest for people such as Ila, those who live with little love or levity. Ila’s husband is having an affair. He comes home late from work and barely notices her desire or her despair. Any proximity only seems to widen the distance between them. When Ila begins to articulate her loneliness in the letters she writes to Saajan, he is never dismissive. He gives her advice. He tells her stories. He makes her laugh. Of all the pleasures Covid-19 has stolen, the comfort of strangers is perhaps the least documented. As the circumference of our social circles has narrowed, we are often always in the company of those who judge us by our past actions. Saajan and Ila are free from history.
Darkness is invariably subterranean. In these past 10 months, for instance, only a few news stories have scratched the surface to measure the astounding loss and devastation that the pandemic has brought about. In Lunchbox, however, suffering underlines subtext. Ila’s brother, we find out, had died by suicide after failing an exam. When Saajan hears that a young woman has jumped off a building with her daughter, his anxiety is palpable. In the letter Ila writes him that day, she imagines how difficult it must have been for the woman to throw herself off the ledge. ‘Doesn’t it take courage to jump off buildings?’ she asks Saajan. He offers relief to Ila and us, too: ‘Things are never as bad as they seem.’
At one point we see Saajan binge-watch 1980s TV comedies his wife used to love. He tells Ila that he had never understood how the same jokes could make his wife laugh over and over again. His regret—‘I wish I had kept looking at her laugh’—feels all too poignant in a year when so many of us have unexpectedly lost partners, parents and friends we loved. For Saajan, his correspondence with Ila is more vital than it is novel. He has opened himself up to influence. When Ila tells him of her father’s struggle with lung cancer, reminding him that every cigarette he smokes will scrape off a few minutes from his life, he resists the urge to smoke after dinner. He now has reason to preserve himself.
Wanting to escape the anguish of her loveless marriage, Ila dreams of an elsewhere. Convinced that she will find joy in a country which measures its prosperity through the prism of a Gross National Happiness register, she tells Saajan she wants to move to Bhutan with her daughter. When he asks if he can come with her, they decide it is best to meet. On the day he is meant to meet Ila, however, Saajan steps into his bathroom and realises it smells the same as it did after his grandfather had used the shower. ‘No one buys a used lottery ticket,’ he writes to Ila, explaining why he never showed up.
For Saajan Fernandes’ generation, the pandemic has made immediate fears of mortality. Saajan’s correspondence with Ila is, of course, a demonstration of his innate empathy, but it also indicates the kind of possibility that someone in their sixties can lay claim to. Seeing Ila wait for him in a café, Saajan is struck by the limits of age, but his encounter with an elderly, wrinkled retiree has an opposite effect. He sees clearly the gulf that separates him from a self that he was imagining himself to be. Lunchbox doesn’t tell us if Saajan and Ila make it to Bhutan, but it leaves us with the realisation that our isolation is ours to defeat.
As the coronavirus made old age more fragile, it brought into sharp focus the value of every breath. Watching the opening scene of Shakun Batra’s Kapoor & Sons, one is struck by the spunk of 89-year-old Amarjeet Kapoor, or Dadu, as he is affectionately called. The pleasure with which he feeds his dog is conspicuous. For days, we hear, Dadu has been ‘practising’ to die. He pretends to drop dead on the breakfast table. He lies in the lawn, wanting his family to believe that the ketchup on his shirt is actually blood. No one takes him seriously, not until he has a real heart attack. Though the playacting is funny, it does reveal a preoccupation with dying. For Dadu, however, everything, even morbidity, can be occasion for levity.
By the time his grandsons, Rahul and Arjun, travel home from London and New Jersey respectively, Dadu is making life hell for the hospital’s nurses. He wants Arjun to give him chocolate and take him for a spin on his wheelchair. His humour is bawdy. He dreams of visiting a Hawaiian nude beach, and he wants Rahul to show him pornography on the iPad he has brought. Dadu wants to be home for his 90th birthday, but most of all, he wants a photograph with his entire family by his side. The affection that Rahul and Arjun have for their grandfather will perhaps seem familiar to us all, but the concern they have for his health seems particularly identifiable at a time all our grandparents need protection.
From March this year, the family again became the primary support system for many of us, but as Kapoor & Sons shows, that same family can trigger trauma, too. Rahul, for instance, is gay, but secrets come tumbling out of his family’s closet faster than he can. Sunita, his mother, it turns out, had given him the idea for a novel Arjun was saving for his debut. His father, Harsh, he learns, is not just bankrupt, but is also adulterous. As these tensions collide against each other, their pitch soon reaches a crescendo. Dadu tries intervening when he sees these conflicts become public knowledge, but he quickly realises the turbulence of his family has spun out of control.
On the surface, Apur Sansar, The Lunchbox and Kapoor & Sons are wholly dissimilar films. Apu, for instance, doesn’t even have Rs 7 to pay for rent. At one point, Saajan says he feels he has spent his entire life standing in buses and trains. He and Ila both belong to the middle class. Dadu’s son, on the other hand, calculates his debts in lakhs. Despite the economic disparity, however, the characters of all three films seem equally affected by love and loss, by death and despair. Moreover, Soumitra Chatterjee, Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor help distract us from the crippling specificity of our identities. They help us analyse ourselves through the filter of Apu, Saajan and Dadu. Much like 2020, they together show us that despite differences in age and affluence, there’s only one path to delight—love.