What would happen if one day an ordinary man conditioned by culture and tradition suddenly decides that he will only believe what he can see with his eyes and disregard everything else? Would he dare to question what society considers as common sense (and truth)? This is precisely what Aankhon Dekhi, written and directed by Rajat Kapoor (Mithya, Kadakh) tries to explore while giving us a deeply notional and existential film.
Raje Bauji (Sanjay Mishra) lives together with his brother Rishi (Rajat Kapoor) in a dilapidated and cramped 'haveli' in old Delhi working as an agent at a local travel agency. When his daughter Rita (Maya Sarao) is found to be dating Ajju (Namit Das), a boy of ill-repute according to hearsay, all hell breaks loose. The family (chacha, brother and a Delhi cop in tow) decide to teach Ajju a lesson but Bauji upon meeting Ajju finds him to be a decent boy. And, thus begins the turn; Bauji recognises that gossip can be dangerous and decides that from hereon he will only believe what his eyes can see (thus the title of the film) and starts questioning everything that he so far has believed to be the gospel truth. For instance, at a birthday party where the entire mohalla has gathered, he refuses to say yes on mundane probes such as whether India's PM is Dr. Manmohan Singh or not. Even when people make fun of him, terming him strange and as one who is going through a mid-life crisis, Bauji remains firm.
To further bolster his decision, he quits his job when he refuses to book tickets to Amsterdam because he has not seen the city and believes he would not be able to do the job with honesty. When the family finds out, it leads to further chaos; Bauji's permanently disgruntled wife Pushpa (Seema Pahwa) says, 'bohot dukhi ho gaye hai tum logon se, chhodh chhad ke chale jayenge ek din'. Added to this khichdi are scenarios where Rishi wants to live seperately, Rita wants to marry Ajju and the neighbourhood fawners who buy into his reasoning become his followers and start treating him as a sage (much to Bauji's chagrin). In a hilarious scene, Bauji after being egged on by one the followers decides to visit the zoo to see a tiger roaring because he has not seen it in reality (things do not go smoothly of course). This stated 'reality' is also what forms the crux of the story; the film actually begins with Bauji reminiscing about his dream. He says, 'Ye sapna mujhe baar baar aata hai, main hawa mein udd raha hoon panchi ki tarah. Magar ye sapna nahi, vastvikta hai. Ye hawa jo mere chehre ko choom rahi hai, yeh yathaarth hai. Wakai gagan ko cheerta hua main chala jar aha hoon, Main udd raha hoon'. In the final scene, this dream merges into and with the real world actions of Bauji; after Pushpa playfully teases him by asking if he has ever had an experience of flying, he decides to experience it and jumps off a cliff closing the film with an ethereal and meditative open end with rousing classical background music (Sagar Desai).
Even though based on a simple concept, the film is engaging for multiple reasons. The writing is razor sharp, humour is generously sprinkled in the screenplay (there is no preaching) and the characters are ones that we have all encountered. The dynamics of a joint family are expertly crafted; Bauji as the patriarchal head who runs riot, Rishi as the caring but unhappy younger brother, the love-hate relationship between jethani–devrani and the constant jostling for freedom and privacy between children and their parents. A great example is of Rita who humours Bauji in the beginning out of selfishness but starts resenting him the moment he does not do what she wants for her wedding. Also by having the film set in old Delhi (without the Punjabiness), comes the middle class mohalla (cramped spaces, narrow lanes, common boundary walls and joined 'chhats') and its colourful mohallawallas who frequently eavesdrop and have an opinion on each other's personal matters. It grounds the film in realism and gives it a lived-in atmosphere. All attributes like the hustle bustle, constant bickering and taunting is captured with absolute clarity by DOP Rafey Mohammed who sets up his frames with painstaking attention.
The performances are sizzling. Seema Pahwa as the perennially nagging wife is her energetic best without seeming foolish. It is fun to watch her spar with the others and deliver sarcasm with precision. Maya Sarao, Rajat Kapoor, Namit Das and the brilliant Brijendra Kala along with a host of others do extremely well within their scope. Kapoor especially, delivers a standout moment in the pre-climax. But it's Sanjay Mishra who is front and centre of the story and is terrific as Bauji. Mishra, best known for his comedic side appearances in Rohit Shetty films (one of his iconic lines 'Dhondhu just chill' is a personal favourite) gets a fully realised and well written part here that he sinks his teeth into. Because he is the head of the family, Mishra gets to play multiple parts in one. This adds layers of complexity to his performance (his physical appearance of an unkempt beard, grizzled hair only adds to the theatrics). He is restrained, hilarious in moments; a string connecting the absurdity and hilarity is of a boy who talks for 3 days continuously and its only Bauji who remains silent in his presence amidst all the cacophony and is worldly wise (he re-discovers his love for gambling in a funny scene) who wants to actually experience every detail before believing in it. He also gets to display a gamut of emotions. In a pivotal scene, after Rishi decides to move out with his family, he gets upset and refuses to acknowledge it – deflecting his hurt by getting angry at Pushpa. In the excellent following scene which is a close up of his face, he is surrounded by people who are chatting. He is zoned out and forlorn and displays his sadness just through his eyes and face, without saying a word. It is brilliant to watch.
Overall, Aankhon Dekhi is an extremely refined, nicely whimsical and deeply cerebral film that highlights the contrast of reality vs truth. It forces you to look inward and contemplate on your own belief system and is a classic that needs discovery.