Director: Deepankar Prakash

Cast: Vijay Shukla, Sumit Gulati, Prageet Pandit, Junaid

Director Deepankar Prakash has no qualms suggesting that his short, Podarok (Russian for “gift”), might have originated from a scene in Italian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malèna. Out of context, the famous scene contains a pragmatic father, who takes his 12-year-old son to the town’s brothel to “initiate” him; the boy imagines the prostitute to be the film’s titular character, a woman he is obsessed with, played by Monica Bellucci. One of Podarok’s early shots has a boy – now a young man on his twenty-first birthday – and his very “modern” middle-class father (an excellent Vijay Shukla) staring at a revealing poster of Bellucci while sharing a drink. Later, the empathetic man “gifts” his adult son his first sexual experience – with a Russian prostitute at a shady brothel.

Only, the tone isn’t as bleak and unforgiving as Malèna’s. Instead, it evokes the playful liberalism of Rajkumar Hirani’s Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., and the portion in which a naïve Munna gifts the dying cancer patient (Jimmy Shergill) a night with a sultry hired dancer. Similarly, the boy here is wheelchair-clad, with no real physical experience and all the drawbacks of disability, and his father gamely reaches beyond the rigidness of a parent-child equation to form the film’s central theme. This, after he notices a stain on the boy’s underwear, taking a second to understand the repressed hormones of a trapped – but growing – body.

The boy’s father gamely reaches beyond the rigidness of a parent-child equation to form the film’s central theme

It is an unlikely but brave thought, and one that is coated with the lighter idiosyncrasies of an accessible commercial drama. For example, even the boy’s sexual awakening is shot in the theatrical hues of the hospital’s “Dekh le” sequence – almost as if the boy were willing his special moment to acquire the dreamy nobility of that ‘item song’. Another indication of its aspirational outlook lies in the image of the waiting room while the boy (audibly) enjoys his gift – a father, his fixer-upper colleague (a perfectly shifty Sumit Gulati) and a pimp (Prageet Pandit), all of them hoping for a suitable “climax”. In any other context, this might have been a borderline-creepy image, in which three adults trace the crests and troughs of a boy’s most personal experience through the sound of his moans. But there’s an air of tragicomedy about it here. Tragic because this manufactured intimacy is the maximum this boy will ever be afforded, and comical because three men from different walks of life sit together in service of a higher purpose without really noticing the oddness of their circumstances.

There is a perceptive little moment towards the end, in which the moral conflict of the man – after all, he is an old Indian parent – is highlighted

Thankfully, the makers don’t disguise the awkwardness of the idea by going full-Hirani on us. They stop short of over-normalizing the situation, which may have been an easy route to take in light of the film’s wholehearted treatment. There is a perceptive little moment towards the end, in which the moral conflict of the man – after all, he is an old Indian parent – is highlighted. One can sense that he is torn between the traditional sinfulness of his decision and an unconditional, blinding love for his son. This is a valid, uncomfortable scene, and almost impossible to get right in its sensitivity. The lines here are somewhat heavy-handed, but at least it becomes clear that a film’s “social message” cannot be bigger than the characters that are created to communicate it. Future directors slated to helm topical Akshay Kumar starrers might want to take note.

Rating:   star
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