“We’re actors — we’re the opposite of people.” ― Tom Stoppard
For the first time in my movie-going experience, I see more people than popcorn.
I listlessly scout for my seat- well actually my mom’s waving arm, and flop down upon L16, only to be instantly jolted upright by the national anthem that starts blaring from a speaker inexplicably positioned just above my right ear. A group of school children are singing in front of me. Good. At least they did away with the flag-rippling-in-photoshopped-sky version that put my teeth on edge during my previous not-so-frequent trips to the celluloid cage. Turns out, the national anthem is just the kick-start for an immense sea of realism that is going to unfold before my eyes, in the guise of a three-hour journey drenched in every possible human emotion my inexperienced heart can fathom.
The movie opens with an equally listless, if not young, Nana Patekar pouring out tea for a group of scraggly-haired people seated in a rundown Tapri against a starry sky. Well, there goes my appetite for coke. Well done, movie. As if the very reason I was exposing myself to a Marathi flick, let alone a drama rendition on a Sunday afternoon wasn’t so that my mom wouldn’t feel lonely. Of course, it’s hard to feel lonely in a place where there are more people than popcorn.
But I’m going off in tangents. I steer my thoughts back onto the silver screen, even as the bearded Nana croons a Marathi lullaby while strolling through a deserted Mumbai street at night. I’m really having second thoughts about leaving my phone for this film.
I watch him saunter through the bylanes of the City of Dreams, and finally take halt at a dilapidated straw-and-mud slum on the edge of the road. Out of nowhere, a family springs up (or at least, that’s what I think then) and begins to reprimand Nana for being “late for dinner”. He shrugs off the whining old lady preparing food on a gas stove by saying “He who rejects your meal, O Zareena (for, as I comprehend, that’s how the lady is named, which immediately dispels my seriously-erred assumption that they’re family), is not fit to be shown pity by a donkey.” This line, I assure you, sounds much better in Marathi. And believe me, that in comparison to the hellish subtitles this film was unfortunate enough to bear the burden of through its entire length, my translation sounds positively poetic.
At any rate, the director has successfully established at this point that said guy of untamed habits and unkempt facial hair, happens to be no ordinary slum dweller. Except that he actually is. For at this point in his lifetime, all that is left of the stage-shattering theater veteran is a forgotten past, an unpredictable present and a bleak future.
Natasamrat isn’t an ordinary stage-to-screen transformation. It’s a cyclone of a film that holds you tight in its clutches, pulling you deeper and deeper within its story and more importantly, its leading character, until you’re breath-close to the slightly vain, moderately self-respecting and completely crazy Marathi dramatist Gautamrao, whose choices on and off the stage leave things difficult for him and his family. As the story unfolds in a deliciously heart-wrenching manner, you discover the past exploits of the retired actor, his decision to quit his profession before he gets kicked out, and his coming home to his own family and that of his childhood friend (played with irreplicable charm by Vikram Gokhale). All is well in the beginning, and Nana excels in his deadpan humor with delightful effortlessness, aided by swift, knife-sharp dialogue and a perfect supporting cast that plays as much role in adding depth to his character as his own acting prowess. It gets clear right from the beginning that Gautamrao isn’t the kind to mix with the sweetly monotonous domesticity of retired life. It is, therefore, no surprise when he calls his daughter-in-law a witch, or cracks sex jokes in front of a scandalised son-in-law and his disgusted boss, or teaches his granddaughter the not-so-child-friendly version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. All this plus the fact that he bursts into long-winded excerpts from his forgotten numbers at the slightest mention of drama, leaves his son and daughter-in-law ruffled. It’s only a matter of time before they can stomach him and his senile tantrums no more. In a touching scene that marks the first bend of the film towards the ruthless tragedy it is about to become, Nana and his wife (Medha Manjrekar, outstanding performance) are thrown out of their homes by their own kin. They then turn to their daughter and her husband, both of whom welcome ‘Aai’ and ‘Baba’ with open arms. It’s here that we’re introduced to the typical “nice-husband-hotheaded-wife-obedient-servant” arrangement that forms yet another household for Nana and his reckless whims to endanger. It’s also here that we’re taken so far apart from Vikram Gokhale that his character almost escapes the folds of our mind, fading against the brain-numbing tempest that is slowly gathering strength before our eyes. Here too, Nana creates problems for the kids and this is one of the few places where the film falters, allowing a thin veil of boredom to settle in my heart.
Following a series of drunken mishaps and an oddly placed interval, we get to the story’s forte- the second half, which builds up better than an Avicii song and forms the prime cause for the much-deserving applause the movie is receiving. In fact, the incessant bludgeonings and ruthless stabs of tragedy the plot puckers your soul with, leaves you desperately longing for the relaxed, laid-back aura of Nana’s Happier Days.
I watch, horrified, as the delicate family drama I was sure I was watching not a minute ago, gets stripped naked and mercilessly morphed into a monstrous tragedy that leaves me numb from head to toe. In swift succession, Nana gets accused of stealing his daughter’s money, runs away from her house and takes shelter in a slum, and watches his wife breathe her last even as she sings, between breathless pants, a Marathi lullaby. The slum dwellers tell Nana she’s gone, and he looks at them, grinning maniacally, and in a tone that would make any human break into desperate tears, breathes out, “He chalnar nahi,” (This won’t do). Not the entire recital of Caesar’s final speech can duplicate the poignancy of those three words.
He loses Vikram Gokhale as well, and in an equally breathtaking exchange tells him how everything in this world is but momentary. Both of them, equally accomplished actors and theatre buddies, re-enact Karna’s plea of justice to Lord Krishna in the hospital room, Vikram playing the former. This scene leaves you dumbstruck and goes to show what two priceless pearls studded amid the chaotic debris of Indian cinema can accomplish and elicit when they come together.
But the most poignant, the most tear-wrenching, and the most brain-freezing scene has to be that of the climax of the film. The memory is stuck forever in my mind; a recklessly crazy Nana hobbling from debris to debris, looking for the last shred of his identity, in what remains of the burnt-down theatre that had given him his very existence. He’s supposedly gone missing for the past three months, and we see his entire family- son, daughter, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, complete with a policeman and the tattered street urchin who had taken care of him, gathered around the stage, watching his terrifying helplessness unfold and gather weight and mount to a crescendo, before Nana loses his remaining sanity and bursts into a delightfully tragic, impossibly well-written and fantastically acted mashup of the final moments of some of the greatest tragic characters literature has created- Caesar, Othello, King Lear and many more from the Marathi side. This scene is by far one of the deepest I have ever come across in an Indian movie, let alone a Marathi one. This is where it all ends, where Nana knows it’s time for him to go; when he hears the ‘third bell’ ring; this is where we see each and every one of the characters who’d made Nana laugh and cry (mostly the latter) in this amazing journey of a half-man-half-maniac; this is where Nana succumbs to the beckoning of his Sarkaar, who’s calling him from the spiritual abode wherein she now bears the reward of all her earthly hardships; this is the final moment of brilliance before the lamp burns out; where everything comes together, and falls apart. This is drama. This is ecstasy. This is legend.
Natasamrat doesn’t end like a movie. It ends like a journey. Like an experience. When the credits roll, and the curtains fall, I feel not a sense of fulfilled tragedy that most contemporary tear-jerkers aim to make the audience feel, but a sort of overwhelming desperation and a deep, deep sense of unfulfillment. Something’s amiss. Something’s not quite in place. But I’m pretty sure it’s an illusion of my heart; probably a heart that has tasted the irresistible wine of perfect cinema and yearns for more. In that case, o giver of life and elicitor of pain alike (excuse my language, I’m carried away), it troubles me much to break it to you, but you’ll be lucky to come across a wine half as delicious as the one that just ran through your veins, birthing an insatiable addiction in your perennial streams of scarlet.
For it’ll be a talented man indeed, who so much as dreams to top this boundless ocean of joy, sorrow, hatred, love, anger, peace, desperation, satisfaction, hunger, thirst, black, white, salt, pepper- and sprinkle it with enough originality so as to not be called a vulgar rip-off of a Marathi play, but an interpretation that dumbs the mouths of the strongest and most merciless critics waiting to bare their fangs and spring their nets. For who can dare say anything against a horrifyingly desperate Nana, the very essence of distilled agony, strutting aimlessly through the ruins of a dilapidated street slum, screaming for asylum?