South Asian International Film Festival 2013: 'Ankhon Dekhi' (SAIFF Review)

In Ankhon Dekhi, Bauji reassesses his life mid-stream bringing about familial difficulties.

Ankhon Dekhi (Before My Eyes) is set in modern India but that information is rarely imparted and rather unnecessary for understanding the story. While you catch a brief glimpse of computers on the internet in a scene where Raje Bauji resigns from his job as a travel agent, and there is mention of Dr. Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister of India, outside of that there are no cell phones seen and there are no glimpses of the modern, elite class in India. This story is strictly confined to a lower middle class social level, though it could apply to anyone in India, with its focus on a family coming apart at the seams because the patriarch, Bauji has had a mid-life crisis of sorts.

The movie opens with the entire family scolding Bauji's daughter Rita for being seen out and about with a boy who is supposedly spending time with all the girls. In a stereotypical Indian fashion, the girl is at fault and is forbidden from seeing the boy, Ajju, again. In overly protective and not un-stereotypical fashion, the males of the family (and some friends?) head over to the boy's house to give him a thrashing for possibly violating Rita's chastity. However, before things get too violent (the brief assault is hardly dramatic), Bauji steps in to stop the assault and comfort the boy. His epiphany? That after seeing that Ajju never shouted and didn't defend himself physically, he didn't believe the boy was capable of the rumors attributed to him, so Bauji could no longer trust things he had not learned first-hand. From here on out, if it wasn't something he experienced directly, then it wouldn't apply to his life.

Whether this is considered a mid-life crisis or not, Bauji's decision has its own impact on the family, creating rifts between him and his brother Rishi and also with his wife Pushpa most egregiously. Yet at the same time the film goes in this direction, the story gets muddled as Bauji, in trying to discover things on his own, becomes a guru with his own devotees and finds himself entangled with at least one nefarious character. Unfortunately, as the movie attempts to further both of these narratives, it loses any potential catharsis, from heart-warming brotherly love or moral upbraiding, that it could have achieved.

It's hard to tell which narrative should be the main one -- the familial one could be stronger, but the film's promotional materials suggest that Bauji's pursuit of truth is more important. I believe otherwise as the familial thread as a lowpoint to it, a falling out between the brothers. On the other hand, there is no negative consequences shown from the truth-seeker's path, despite Bauji crossing paths with people who are capable of lying to him. Implausibly, no one takes advantage of this man who is willing to implicitly believe everything he sees. When Bauji's son became indebted to a loan shark, Bauji called the mafioso type a nice man and ends up playing cards to repay the debt. He wins a good deal of money supposedly and Bauji is hired to play cards for the guy, his new profession since leaving the travel agency. But when he is off doing something else and not playing, Baufji doesn't have his legs broken or anything, the "bad guy" ends up participating in the wedding as a "family member". I could never tell if director Rajat Kapoor's film was a comedy or a drama but then again, I never felt the urge to stop watching, which means it wasn't a bad film.

The highlight of the film is the solid acting with Seema Pahwa, as matriarch Pushpa, stealing the show. As the housewife, Pushpa has no ability to provide for the family on her own, so she relies on Bauji to bring in the money (the gender inequality in the film feels very true to life). Her outrage at him for lying about still having his travel agent job, which he left because he couldn't lie to customers and send them to Amsterdam (for example) because it wasn't a place he verified on his own, is divine. Yet as infuriating as he is, nothing affects Bauji. His erroneous, foolish ways turn into good fortune often enough that he could be compared to Homer Simpson (minus the belching and beer drinking). Bauji's brother also is an excellent foil and shows the anguish from distancing himself from his Bauji's family more markedly across his face.

Ankhon Dekhi excels at depicting the Indian home life and how different it is to have an extended family at the core of a household instead of the immediate family relationship that forms the basis of many Western/American homes. Unfortunately, this gets sidelined by some Simpsons-esque twists (what does the tiger say?) with less humor to enhance the mood (it does have at least five songs) and no true emotional arc for the protagonist.

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