October 11, 2019
Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Farhan Akhtar, Zaira Wasim, Rohit Suresh Saraf
In a defining scene in The Sky Is Pink, a well-meaning woman offers Aditi and Niren Chaudhary a shoulder to cry on. The couple has just lost their 18-year-old daughter Aisha, so when their friend says she understands their pain because she is going through the same thing, you assume she too has lost a child. But no, her family is instead coping with the death of a parent who was, at 73, as the lady puts it, too young to die.
You would imagine that it must take a particularly stupid or insensitive person to equate the passing away of a teenaged child and a septuagenarian parent. But the Chaudharys’ friend is neither stupid, nor insensitive – she is a reasonably intelligent, affectionate woman reduced to making meaningless remarks in the face of their heartbreak. Which makes her simply human.
Because one of the most human of all reactions to another person’s grief is to fill silences with mindless sentences. There are no absolutely appropriate words to say when death comes visiting, and so people tend to get awkward and say terribly inappropriate things.
Writer-director Shonali Bose is perhaps better equipped than most to respond to a fellow human being coping with the death of a child, having herself known this tragic loss, as the closing text on screen reminds viewers. This, as much as her natural talent as a storyteller, may explain why Bose rarely puts a foot wrong with the emotional graph of The Sky Is Pink, an uncommonly calm, collected, non-sappy take on the life and death of a girl born with a rare congenital disorder.
For a start, Bose – who earlier made Amu and Margarita With A Straw – and her co-writer Nilesh Maniyar go down an unconventional path by making their film not about the little girl, although the life of a bright kid cut prematurely short is brimming with potential to tug at the heartstrings. Instead, they pivot their story on her mother and father, their romance, their marriage, their decision to have Aisha against genetic odds that they are aware of, their journey as parents of a kid who they know they are likely to outlive, and the abiding love that keeps them going.
Having made this uncommon choice, Bose and Maniyar go a step further by packing The Sky Is Pink with sunshine.
Based on a true story, the film is narrated by Aisha herself, a dead Aisha who lets on right at the start that she is speaking to us from beyond the grave. This is a narrative decision that at first threatens to go all cutesy on listeners as the girl introduces her family by her nicknames for them: Moose for her Mama Bear, Panda for her Papa Bear, and Giraffe for her brother Ishaan. The filmmaker may argue that this is how the real Aisha would have spoken, but the jury is out on that one since videos of her speeches available online suggest otherwise. Aisha persists with these names throughout the film, which is occasionally irritating, but never so much as to overshadow the incredibly moving story she recounts in an otherwise incredibly moving fashion.
Where the narrative might have been well served by extending itself is in the side effects of Aditi’s pre-occupation with Aisha. The Sky Is Pink dwells at length – and very well – on how Aditi’s obsessive approach to the care of her unwell daughter affects her marriage, causes her to get aggressive with medical professionals and justifiably strict with household help. But she is never less than likeable to anyone in her circle, not even to her frightened but loyal staff, and that is hard to believe considering the nature of her fixation on Aisha even as it is portrayed in the film.
Perhaps this was inevitable. The film is, after all, based on the real-life Chaudharys’ own memories and records, which means it is largely their account of themselves.
Another aspect that remains untouched is class privilege. At the start of the journey with Aisha, Aditi and Niren are a struggling middle-class couple who have to scrape cash together to travel to London for their infant’s treatment, but in a little over a decade Niren has sped up the corporate ladder and they are the occupants of a posh farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi. This rise in their fortunes is shown to solely affect their ability to afford costly treatments for Aisha, and nothing else – not their attitudes, not their equations with others or each other, nothing.
In a speech she delivered in her avatar as a motivational speaker towards the end of her life, the real Aisha herself had expressed awareness of the advantages she enjoys as a result of her family’s considerable wealth. The Sky Is Pink could only have been enriched by showing conversations at home that caused Aisha to be so self aware at such a young age or by delving into the flip sides, if any, of their improved financial circumstances.
This is not to suggest at all that the film paints the Chaudharys as flawless creatures – no it does not. However, an exploration of these points could have given the film even more depth than it already has.
And depth it certainly does have. The non-linear narrative is structured in such a way as to keep The Sky Is Pink from becoming a maudlin affair. With editor Manas Mittal’s swift, clean cuts, a tempered use of music and Aisha’s determinedly non-mushy yet realistic narration, Bose manages to maintain a fine balance of emotions till the very last scene, bringing home not just what must have been the real Chaudharys’ goal of giving their daughter and her healthy brother as normal a household as possible, but also reminding the audience that our world is filled with laughter in the unlikeliest of places. I confess I was reduced to a sobbing mess at various moments in the film, but never because of any schmaltzy manipulations by the filmmaker.
The only other point where the film gets too cute – other than its persistence with “Moose”, “Panda” and “Giraffe” – is with the closing text. Hearing Aisha speak through The Sky Is Pink is pleasant and life-affirming, but continuing to use her words even after she has breathed her last on screen in a beautifully directed scene and even after her last rites comes across as a shot at cho-chweetness that is a departure from everything else in The Sky Is Pink.
I also felt slightly uncomfortable at the overt effort to draw viewers to Aisha’s online presence, through the text in those final minutes directing us to catch her on YouTube.
The back and forth in time gets slightly taxing at a couple of places (and I spotted at least one factual error in the timeline – a clothing brand shop shown to exist in Delhi before the brand’s stores were launched in India), but these creases are quickly smoothened out in each case, and the shifts in time always serve to keep the film even toned.
The Sky Is Pink is as thoughtful with its sidelights as it is with its central themes. At a time when India’s religious minorities are under siege, the film unexpectedly discusses a conversion without resorting to the stereotypes that propagandists have sought to perpetuate for decades. In a film industry that once inexorably portrayed Christians as quasi-foreigners, the passing image of a sari-wearing Christian nun in The Sky Is Pink is such a refreshing reminder of reality. (Wonder why Bose persisted with the stereotype in the nun’s language though. “Mother Mary tumhara pain samajhti hai,” the woman tells Aditi. Bollywood seems oblivious to the fact that a Hindi-bhaashi among India’s Christians would actually have said: “Maata Mariam tumhara dard samajhti hai.”)
One of many pathbreaking elements in The Sky Is Pink is its willingness to bring up that A word that Bollywood at large abjures and Ali Abbas Zafar’s Sultan just recently avoided mentioning: abortion. It does so with the same courage Bose showed in focusing on the sexuality of a woman with a severe disability in the lovely Margarita With A Straw. Abortion is discussed in The Sky Is Pink with the open-mindedness of a genuine pro-choice liberal, that rare individual who does not pass judgement either on a parent who considers terminating a pregnancy or a parent for whom that is just not an option. Stand up and take a bow please, Shonali Bose. Take a bow too, Aditi and Niren, for not getting Ms Bose to skip this subject, although you must have known that you would very likely be judged for it by people on both sides of the ideological aisle.
As Aisha’s illness takes the Chaudharys from Delhi to London and back, Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ remarkably controlled performance as tiger mom Aditi gives the film a stillness that belies the constant turmoil unfolding on screen. Chopra Jonas’ simmering restraint is well matched by Farhan Akhtar’s solid turn as Mr Dependability, Niren.
Zaira Wasim as Aisha injects her character’s bio with a cheeriness that is never over the top. And Rohit Suresh Saraf delivers a mature performance as her brother Ishaan. Although The Sky Is Pink is primarily the story of Aditi and Niren, the writers manage to bring the children alive on screen, imbuing their canvas with warmth sans the resentment one might expect when one kid requires so much attention from the parents. While some may find it hard to believe Ishaan’s devotion to Aisha, the other way of looking at it is that not everyone reacts to the same situation in precisely the same way. And perhaps the Chaudharys did indeed manage not to neglect Ishaan despite the demands made on their time by Aisha’s health. If you know a beloved sibling is bound to die an early death and if your parents were wise enough to include you in their daily battles, perhaps you too would find it in you to not grudge your little sister the spotlight in your house.
Large passages of The Sky Is Pink are swaddled in sorrow, as you might expect, but the film’s stand-out quality is its commitment to its positivity. Without seeming to try too hard, it is funny, believable and heart-wrenching all rolled into one. Death in the storyline is as inevitable as it is for all of us in real life, but what this film does is to celebrate lives well lived.
Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Photographs courtesy: Treeshul Media