Special Review: Goldfish

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Goldfish (dir. Pushan Kripalani, 2022)

“Let’s just get through this,” Anamika (Kalki Koechlin) says brusquely as she pushes past her mother in the doorway and heads up the stairs to her old room. We understand very quickly that the relationship between Anamika and her mother, Sadhana (Deepti Naval), is fraught, and that Anamika had left her neighbourhood and her mother behind. But Anamika gets a call from a neighbour, Laxmi Natrajan (Bharti Patel) after her mother causes a fire while making pakodas. “Fire brigade?” asks Anamika. “Yeah, fire brigade, social services, social security, local council,” Laxmi tells her. Sadhana, we learn, is in the early stages of dementia, and will require a needs assessment, which she patently refuses to take. “Hey,” Laxmi tells Anamika, “I said come. I didn’t say it would be easy.”

And easy it is definitely not. Anamika finds herself caught between two worlds, the England she lives in which would see her mother put into a care home, contrasted with what would happen in a joint family in India, where she would remain at home, and someone would be paid to stay with her. Laxmi wants Anamika to wait for some time, to see how things go, but Anamika does not have time: she’s up for a job in Swizterland, and fully intends to accept the offer and leave. And Anamika discovers that being back home, with her mother, raises all sorts of issues, opens all sorts of old wounds, which her mother’s health concerns just serve to exacerbate. The two of them are cautious and prickly around each other. Anamika questions why her mother has so many highlighter pens, and wonders why she’s using a dictaphone for her music (for Sadhana is a well-respected Indian classical musician) when it’s not “traditional”. “Not everything we learned was correct,” says Sadhana.

One of the problems here is that Sadhana knows she has dementia, and feels she is still well enough to look after herself. It makes her angry that Laxmi has called Anamika. Mother and daughter must peel back the layers of their relationship and tease out what is true, what is false, what is illness, and what is not.

Anyone who has dealt with a dementia patient will know this is no easy task. In the early stages, patients just seem occasionally forgetful, and they learn coping mechanisms to both deal with the situation, as well as to hide it from others. This is understandable: what independent, capable adult would want to give up their autonomy, risk having to leave their home? And for family and friends, those early signs are often difficult to see until the moment when they can no longer be hidden. By then, it’s too late for patients to make the decisions for themselves on how their end of life will unfold, and it’s often overwhelming for family to understand and cope with decisions that need to be made quickly, usurping their relative’s independence. And there is also the guilt and shock of finally realizing all the little signs that were right there, and yet so easy to miss. Mom is forgetful? Well, everyone is sometimes, especially as they get older. Dad has misplaced his glasses again? Who hasn’t done that? It’s easy to miss the early signs of dementia, until things reach a point where they can no longer be ignored.

I have first-hand experience with the situation Anamika finds herself in, and from my perspective, Kripalani’s film gets this absolutely right. Sadhana firmly believes she is still well enough to stay in her home and look after herself. She is aware enough to know that she will need some kind of home care, but she is adamant that Anamika will have no role beyond signing for that care. But we also see that what Sadhana believes is not her reality. Anamika is awakened very early one morning to the sound of the front door closing, and she rushes out to find her mother walking down the street, dressed in a beautiful sari, coatless and shoeless in cold weather, having mistaken the day she is supposed to go to the BBC for a recording.

But Goldfish is as much Anamika’s story as it is her mother’s. She must come to terms with her relationship not only with her mother, but with the neighbourhood she has left behind, a neighbourhood that has changed as much as it remains familiar, a neighbourhood that is coping with the early moments of the Covid pandemic. People begin wearing masks. Grocery deliveries are organized as people are required to stay home. And neighbours look out for Sadhana, and pointedly note that Anamika only knows what’s going on with her mother because someone called her and told her. Anamika learns things about her mother she never knew, learns some of her mother’s secrets (because there are always things we do not know about our parents), and she must also let go of old wounds in order to move forward.

Goldfish is a challenging film, and especially hard to watch if you have experience with a loved one with dementia. And it works brilliantly not only because of the writing (Pushan Kripalani and Arghya Lahiri), but also because of the film’s two leads, Kalki Koechlin and Deepti Naval, who brilliantly inhabit this daughter and mother, with a relationship that is as abrasive as it is connected, that pushes as much as it pulls. So many moments in the film haunted me, but the one that made me cry was when Anamika begins packing her mother’s things, and she finds a notebook in which her mother recorded household expenses. Sadhana’s handwriting starts out neat and meticulous, but as Anamika turns the pages, her mother’s handwriting becomes, bit by little bit, increasingly illegible and unintelligible. It’s something I’ve seen, and it’s also a perfect metaphor for an illness that brings chaos into minds and lives. Whatever decision Anamika makes — for herself, for her mother – it will never be entirely right, nor entirely wrong. But it may be – to echo her mother’s words – just enough.

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