Director: Aditya Suhas Jambhale
Cast: Arun Naalawade
One of the most eye-catching (ear-catching?) segments in Humaramovie’s Shor Se Shuruaat (2016) – a professionally mentored anthology of short films pivoting on the theme of “shor (noise)” – was Amira Bhargava’s Aamer. Mentored by Zoya Akhtar, Bhargava told the story of a pre-teen boy whose life goes from tragic silent to colourful talkie once his mother buys him a hearing-aid device. The ending of this short stayed with me: The sound quickly turns into noise. The boy, after an initial honeymoon phase in which he hears music in the rhythm of everyday life, starts to feel assaulted by the cacophony of the city’s streets. He chucks away the device. Aditya Suhas Jambhale, the National Award winner for Best short-film Direction, skillfully employs the same aural conflict to examine the other end of the age spectrum in his Marathi-language short, Aaba Aiktaay Naa?.
Aaba (Arun Naalawade) is a retired old man with a hearing problem. As a result, he is simple and content, unaware of unimportant voices and busy surroundings, spending his days peering over the newspaper crossword (it exercises his mind rather than his senses) and making poetic observations about his family and laughing-club colleagues. He speaks to a photograph of his late wife and marvels at the stability of his adult son’s young family. He is, quite literally, marching to his own beat. Until one day, a precarious domestic situation (involving the housemaid and a pressure cooker) forces Aaba to use a prescribed hearing-aid device. A whole new world opens out to him – now he can hear the tadka popping on the dal, the water poured into his glass, the pitter-patter of raindrops, even the sound of his own teeth chewing on food. He likes the soundtrack of nature, but unfortunately for him, it is accompanied by the soundtrack of human nature. His family seems to have forgotten that Aaba can now hear them speak behind his back. The old man’s face falls. Worst of all, he cannot concentrate on his beloved crossword anymore.
Director Jambhale goes one better with Aamer’s narrative gimmick. The sound design (Rohit Pradhan) and mix (Justin Jose) tend to be the technical heroes of such stories. But it’s the writing that sounds good here. The maker cleverly chooses the kind of protagonist that allows the short to reveal little sociocultural vignettes of middle-class Maharashtrian society. It’s not just about the concept of technology disturbing the classical equilibrium of those who choose to use it. It’s about being unable to escape from the in-between-ness of existence – the insidious household whispers, secret terrace chats and bitter consciences – that is often overlooked by lofty mainstream movies. It’s also about a man whose entire personality is at risk; his calm, healthy temperament is a direct result of not being able to hear the smallness of humanity. And when he can, he can’t help but wonder if age – and deafness, in particular – is more of a superpower than a liability. It’s all very romantic to listen, but this privilege often comes at the cost of having to know. The emotion of sound – along with that of sight – is a cinematically ripe feeling.
There is another layer of understanding: The device, for younger ones like myself, represents the role of the internet. It assaults us with unnecessary information and opinions and false notions of self-worth, and distracts the mind from purist activities like reading and thinking. It dictates our moods and dilutes our ideas. The film ends with a lovely, lyrical poem, in which poor Aaba ruminates on the true purpose of crosswords. Are crosswords – the clues, systematic design, its silent companionship – created to be solved at all? The answer to this question defines the essence of this deceptively introspective film.