The first few scenes of Waiting don't leave you with ample optimism. As Shiv Nataraj (Naseeruddin Shah) walks through the corridors of a hospital, doctors and nurses speak to him in a manner and tone that feels stilted. The film initially seems imbued with the same awkwardness which defines a still fledgling 'Hinglish' genre. Paradoxically, the dialogue in such films ought to feel more natural, but conversations invariably end up feeling contrived. Though the unease probably survives in my mind, for the film's first minutes, when Shiv tends to his comatose wife and Tara Deshpande (Kalki Koechlin) spouts one expletive after another, I thought to myself, "No. Not this again. Pretty please."
It predictably takes only a couple of minutes for Shah to warm up, and by the time Koechlin arrives at the same hospital, he seems ready to steal every frame. There is an assuredness with which he demonstrates an enviable empathy. Tara, for instance, asks Shiv how he succeeds in being so 'Zen'.
The answer is simple – calm is often an inevitable attribute of the territories which Shah comes to inhabit. Koechlin, for her part, plays Tara with a convincing effortlessness. Only married for six weeks, a sprightly Tara is devastated when her husband meets with a near-fatal accident. She is forced to struggle with the possibility of his loss whilst still in that proverbial honeymoon period. Koechlin's portrayal of Tara's breakdown is harrowing, but measured enough to not be over-the-top.
Waiting is essentially a story of an unlikely friendship. Shiv has never heard of Twitter. Tara has over 1,400 friends on Facebook. Shiv visits a temple to find strength in faith. Tara is an atheist. The gap between them is a generational one, but they lighten the other's suffering with warmth. In a manner that is reminiscent of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, Shiv and Tara open themselves to influence and find that there is comfort to be found in strangers.
When Tara's life and disposition came to exactly mirror Shiv's, I did feel the script had resorted to a storytelling that was all too pat and convenient. That disaffection, though, was soon dispelled. Time spent in a hospital's waiting room can often seem interminable, but Waiting, for its 1 hour 38 minutes, moves at a pace that's brisk. The film avoids the trappings of slow and sluggish melancholy, while still climbing the stages of grief.
After the forgettable London, Paris, New York and a segment in the tedious X: Past is Present, Waiting finally sees director Anu Menon come into her own, and this for an industry that is starved of women filmmakers, can only be good news. Despite there being considerable room for histrionics and melodrama, Menon doesn't once succumb to those temptations. The complexities that the director injects in Shiv's relationship with Tara are atypical and not hackneyed. Mortality is undoubtedly a tricky theme but Menon doesn't flinch. Her gaze is always felt and never sentimental.
Waiting will undoubtedly remind you of a time when a loved one had taken ill, but that's not the only reason why you should buy a ticket to watch it. Watch it because its actors are on the top of their game, because its entertainment is never instructive and because it finds hope amidst dire loss.
Rating: 3.5 stars