Starring Sharmila Tagore, Girish Karnad, Om Puri, Soha Ali Khan, Mukulika Banerjee, Neerja Naik, Rez Kempton
Written & Directed by Sangeeta Dutta
One of the many pleasures of watching this supple evocative elegiac family saga is to see the timeless Sharmila Tagore share screen space with her real-life daughter Soha, who by the way, has never looked lovelier. That inner-glow comes from the company she keeps in this gentle drama suffused in melodious whispers and mellifluous suggestions of tunes long-forgotten and yet stored in the most inviolable chambers of the heart.
Luckily for us, and the film, the Sharmila-Soha togetherness is not harped upon. There are far bigger issues and virtues to do with family ties and cultural dis-affectation, secreted in the storytelling, propelling our hearts to soar in ways that modern cinema doesn’t allow.
When did Indian cinema cease to be about emotions? You wonder as you watch the silken cascade of debutante director Sangeeta Dutta’s family secrets and emotions gush out in an Bengali family in London, when one fine morning the mother simply drops dead on the kitchen floor.
The mother-figure, a constant and non-negotiable pivot of every family, here seems to be much more in demand than usual. All her three daughters seem to be stricken with heart problems that no cardiologist can tackle. Blessedly the mother of the family Manju is played by the gloriously imposing Sharmila Tagore. She looks like a woman who can handle the problems of three demanding extra-sensitive daughters, and then some more.
Life Goes On captures the suddenness of bereavement in snatches of sounds, visuals and dialogues done in hurried snatches. There’s far more austerity in the expression of the anguish and despair after the sudden bereavement than in Mira Nair’s masterly study of coming to terms with death in The Namesake. At times you long for more time between the members of the grieving family.
There are no big breakdown sequences in Life Goes On after the mother’s death. Everyone gets busy with trying to pick up the threads of life through the guiding-signs of re-collective silence and dialogues. Everyone is a bit selfish in this family. That’s the family secret that the film doesn’t get judgemental about.
A lot of the vignettes connecting the mother’s memories to the present times appear predictable even pedestrian; The director, fearless in her maiden endeavor, does not shy away from making her film look familiar.In doing so she creates a comfort zone between the audience and the characters’ collective and individual grief.
From the death to reconciliation, Life Goes On moves at a gentle pace creating pockets of interesting if unfinished dialogue and emotions between characters whom the dead woman touched and influenced infinitely.
The echoes and resonances of a life that lingers after death is created through a blend of sounds and visuals capturing the feeble but flamboyant light of London at dawn and dusk. The parks, bridges, two-storied residential areas and their incriminating quietude are ably captured in the film, as are the pain and postures of grief and mourning.
The Rabindra Sangeet in the original Bengali and a rather quaint Hindi translation suffuse a warm and endearing quality to the proceedings. The cross-cultural references resonate across the film’s somber skyline with unobtrusive emphasis.
The film creates a fine balance between real-life elegies and their cinematic rendition. A lot of Sangeeta Dutta’s mise en scene project a first-time director’s effusive affinity to creating a defiant poetry out of the prosaic rhythms of life. But the self consciousness of a debutante never distracts from the film’s elegantly laid-out pastiche of pain hurt and their healing; if at all the pain of loss ever goes away.
Life for the Indian Bengali family in Britain never seemed more complex.
At times you feel the director has ‘Britain’ more than she can chew. The sub-plot, on Islam-phobia brought in through Soha’s boyfriend’s character Imtiaz (Rez Kempton) and the rock band that Imtiaz and his friends put together despite Mullahs’ objections, seems to tangent away from the Bengali family’s bereavement. But at the end when we see the band playing a punk version of Hemant Kumar’s ‘Ganga aaye kahan se’ laced with a French rap section, you smile for the cultural shifts and translocations that the plot endeavours to establish without falling off the map of the human heart.
The performances by the veterans Girish Karnad, Om Puri and Sharmila Tagore are uniformly skilled and supple. Among the younger cast members Soha Ali Khan as the youngest Cordelia-like daughter to Karnad’s King Lear emerges strong and yet vulnerable. But it is the unknown young actress Neerja Naik who plays Soha’s lesbian sister who proves a complete natural.
The subtle, delicate, tender and utterly disarming play of light and shade, of mellow memories and the hard present-reality, of the various cultural cross-generation clashes – all these could have made any film topheavy. Not Life Goes On. It is a gloriously polished and poised look at the chaos that rules the bereaved heart in our troubled times. This film is a triumph on many levels and layers. And you don’t have to be a Sharmila Tagore fan to realize how resonant her presence can be even when she is lost to the plot.