March 21, 2014
Sanjay Mishra, Seema Pahwa, Rajat Kapoor, Taranjeet, Maya Sarao, Namit Das, Brijendra Kala, Manu Rishi
If writer-director Rajat Kapoor had not cast professional actors in his film, you could be forgiven for assuming that no one here is acting. Ankhon Dekhi is so utterly real that it feels as if Kapoor just left cameras randomly lying around in homes, offices and bylanes in Old Delhi to catch people going about their daily business. The film re-affirms the truth that we are all heroes and heroines of our own lives. To land that part, we don’t need connections, a gorgeous face, a godparent, six packs, a tiny waist or dancing skills. Certainly Bauji (Sanjay Mishra) can’t boast of any of the above, yet Ankhon Dekhi revolves around this kindly old man and the consequences of his overnight decision to never again believe anything he’s not actually seen.
On a physical, worldly level, this poses obvious problems. For instance, he works in a travel agency but refuses to confirm to customers any information about destinations he’s not visited because, well, he’s not been there so how can he be sure? On a metaphysical level, it leads to discussions on various existential questions. As Bauji stubbornly sticks to his new principles both on the personal and professional front, he gathers around himself a group of hangers-on initially filled with amusement and jibes, but then with disciple-like awe and analysis. You don’t have to be a movie star or an MD to attract chamchas. People like Bauji can be found everywhere, delivering gyaan at nukkads and in office canteens, in newsrooms and drawing rooms, dispensing wisdom with the conviction that it is wisdom, and sometimes convincing others too. Some Baujis have even founded religions that became billion-dollar industries. Most, like the leading man of Ankhon Dekhi, remain frog kings in their little wells.
Point is, there’s often just a fine line between the genuine and the eccentric, the profound and the pretentious – it’s all a matter of perspective, the call is yours. Bauji drives his family and boss nuts, but his innate goodness gets him through life. As it makes minute observations about that life while joining Bauji in raising questions, Ankhon Dekhi is a joy to watch.
Early in the film, a local busybody reports to Bauji that his daughter has been hanging out with a fellow of disrepute. The family – Bauji, his younger brother, their wives and children – are shaken, of course. These are good people, yet they think nothing of locking up the girl in her room, dashing off to the boy’s house accompanied by a cop, roughing him up and threatening to beat him to pulp if he dares to go near their beti. The cop himself thinks nothing of being a part of such a blatantly illegal action. Laws be damned, these are the galis of Purani Dilli, where gossips and bullies have precedence over the system. Heck, they are the system.
There are no clichés or caricatures in Ankhon Dekhi. The grime is neither glamourised nor over-stated; it’s just there. The humour does not descend to buffoonery at any point. When you enter a new house you see the sheen but the camera also mentions that broken flooring in a corner. The proceedings have such a natural flow to them that everything feels like it’s unfolding in real time in real life.
The reason of course is the combined impact of smooth writing, inspired direction and impeccable casting. After years of being straitjacketed in clichéd comedic roles (in which he’s been a hoot, no doubt), Mishra gets to play a truly challenging, intriguing, maddening yet loveable character and he makes Bauji completely, entirely his own. Seema Pahwa (Seema Bhargava from Hum Log) is utterly convincing as Bauji’s abrasive yet loving wife. Kapoor casts himself as the most reticent character of the clan, Bauji’s younger brother, and is absolutely believable too. Not a single actor in this ensemble sets a foot wrong throughout. Maya Sarao as Bauji’s daughter and Taranjeet as his younger sister-in-law are particularly brilliant. Why on earth do we not see these wonderful artistes more often on the big screen?
Ankhon Dekhi can be watched at many levels. You could either take it as a telling, compelling slice of life or you could grapple with the questions it raises or do both. This is Dilli, take it or leave it, where neighbourly intrusiveness comes as a package deal with padosans and colleagues who will drop in to help with wedding preparations without waiting to be formally asked. This is a joint family, take it or leave it, where camaraderie comes as a package deal with kitchen squabbles and fraternal ego clashes. Exasperating, but impossible not to love.
And then there is this thought: What if you were actually faced with crazy old Bauji as an interrogator one day? Would you manage to silence him? Or would you, like that harassed Mathematics teacher in the film, begin to doubt your long-held life theories? Either way, as entertaining and amusing as Ankhon Dekhi is, it does not spoonfeed the viewer with solutions or answers. It provokes and then, with its open-ended climax, leaves you to yourself. This is a real-yet-fantastical film (no, that’s not a contradiction in terms). It’s sweet, side-splittingly funny in places, brilliantly acted, insightful and thoughtful all rolled in one.
Rating (out of five): ***1/2 (stars out of 5)
CBFC Rating (India):
Photograph courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/AnkhonDekhi