Directed by Sangeeta Datta, Life Goes On stars Om Puri, Girish Karnad, Soha Ali Khan and Sharmila Tagore in pivotal roles. Life Goes On was inspired by Shakespeare’s play King Lear and the drama explores the relations between a grief stricken father and his three daughters. Set in London, the time is now, the family of Indian origin – part of the UK diaspora.
With his wife’s sudden death, Sanjay is suddenly thrown into close proximity with his three daughters. The drama unfolds over five days from the day when Manju dies to the day of the funeral.
Haunted by memories, grappling with this devastating loss, missing the mediating influence of his wife, Sanjay finds himself assessing and carving out new relations with his three daughters. He is faced with a further crisis when he discovers his youngest and most loved daughter Dia, has a Muslim boyfriend – Imtiaz. Confused and angry, Sanjay leaves home and wanders the streets of London one night. With an unexpected series of events, Sanjay is forced to face his past demons, his trauma over the partition of India when as a child, he was forced to leave his home with his parents. Finally to come to terms with his old and unspoken prejudice about Muslims, in the larger context of the country in the grips of Islamaphobia as the events of 7/7 and the consequences of the Iraq war reverberate.
As he sits drenched and tired on a bench on Hampstead Heath and watches the sun rise – Sanjay puts his demons to rest. At the funeral he has come to terms with himself, he allows the Muslim boy to join the family rituals and sees his daughters for what they are and not what he expected them to be.
The film has been screened at several prestigious film festivals and opened in the UK last week, and opens in India on March 18th. On March 11, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) organized a special screening of the British Asian film followed by a Q&A chaired by Professor Rachel Dwyer. The director of the film, Dr. Sangeeta Datta, actress Dr. Mukulika Banerjee, Professor Rene Weis and Tehmina Kazi (British Muslims for Secular Democracy) were on the panel and answered questions around the film.
Dr Rachel Dwyer started the session by asking Dr Sangeeta Dutta, the director how the film came to be. Dutta had various reasons which led to making this film, but most important were the following three factors she said.
“One was Islamophobia, even in a city like London after 9/11 and definitely 7/7.
Secondly, I was toying with the idea of looking at King Lear with a more contemporary way, in a British Asian context.
Thirdly, a far more personal reason, as a Diaspora we live thousands of miles away from our immediate families. There was a time when my mother was not keeping too well. So there was this anxiety of parental loss. These factors made me write very urgently,” said Dutta.
Dr. Mukulika Banerjee plays the character of Sharmila Tagore’s daughter and in real life is a friend of Dutta. “I knew about the film when she was writing it. We talked about it. She then decided to cast me in the film and I am very grateful for that,” said the actress.
Banarjee worked in theater and made her debut in cinema with this very film. Talking about her experience she said, “It has been a real adventure for me. It was a very London film. It was a story that I could see, mostly to whoever lives in London, can relate to. What I particularly liked was the intimate family drama, actually allowing you think to about bigger issues.”
Tehmina Kazi (British Muslims for Secular Democracy) spoke about prejudice in the UK media against Islam and how necessary it is to reach out to the public with films like Life Goes On.
Soha Ali Khan’s character, who is a Hindu, falls in love with a Muslim man in the film. However, her father played by Girish Karnad is extremely biased and discriminative towards Muslims, despite living in a mixed cultured metropolitan city for years.
The film, which is set against the backdrop of London, beautifully highlights how older people have not forgotten those sacrifices and killings during the 1974 partition riots. Life Goes On is a brave film as it shows how certain events can lead to prejudice against a whole race or religion. Yet, the film is a brilliant example of how the second generations of immigrants have integrated themselves in society where factors like religion are of trivial importance.
Addressing the audience, Kazi said: “Such films are very important in deconstructing stereo types around Islam and Muslims. For instance, it was
very refreshing to have a character who challenged the views of the extremists, that music in Islam is prohibited.”
Rachel Dwyer asked Sangeeta Dutta why many filmmakers in the Indian Diaspora, who have been successful are women, for example: Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, Gurinder Chaddha and now she herself. She quickly responded by saying: “I don’t have a ready answer for that. I admire people like Mira and Deepa. Of course, they have been role models.”
Dutta mentioned about her struggle to find distributors for an English Indian film. “It is fun to make a film. It’s even better to show off your film at the festivals. But when you have to market the film and look for distributors and get into that real difficult territory, which you always hope someone else will do for you.”
As proved by recent hits such as Golmaal 3 she went on to say that “the face of Bollywood films today is entertainment.”
She disagrees with actors like Imran Khan, as Dutta believes that Cinema is a medium that needs to make the audience think, just like any other medium of art should.
Dutta wanted something different and not a stereotype film on a British Asian story. “When I was writing the script, I definitely felt that I don’t want to write another Asian corner store story. These stories have been told, they will continue to be told and they will be popular. There are other stories and experiences. If you see a British Asian family wealthy around you, it should not be making you uncomfortable. The Asian corner shops and the Punjabi’s of Southall remain the stereotypes and continue to make people feel comfortable. Life Goes On has a unique story and I feel that the Bengal story has not been told enough in Cinema.”
The OST of the film is mixed with Hindi and Bengali songs. Javed Akhtar wrote the lyrics and even translated some iconic Bengali songs into Hindi. Sangeeta shared her experience of working with him while addressing the audience at SOAS:
“It was a wonderful experience working with Javed Akhtar, who is one of the best known poets in India and certainly one of the best known lyricists in Bollywood.
He sat with me and translated the Bengali poems into Hindi. He came up with three or five possibilities for each verse and then wrote them in the exact same cadence.”
She was asked a vital question by a member of the audience as to why she chose not to reveal to one of the characters in the film, who her real father was.
She responded with: “I didn’t think I would have to close every story. It would have made the film another half an hour longer. Already, people have complained about the length of the film.”
‘Life Goes On’ is rich with poetry and Shakespeare references. On being asked whether she deliberately brought these elements in the film she said:
“I come from a culture of literature and poetry. We don’t do it in a sense of affectation. We are not doing it in a forced manner either. It’s just natural that they come together as I am familiar with all of them.”
Dutta was surprised to be asked a few days back whether Shakespeare is famous back in India and also revealed why she particularly chose ‘King Lear’ as an inspiration for her film.
“There is this wonderful filmmaker, Vishal Bharadwaj who made films based on