Director: Vikas Bahl
Writer: Vikas Bahl
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Rashmika Mandanna, Neena Gupta, Pavail Gulati, Ashish Vidyarthi
Four adults rush to their family home in Chandigarh. Their favourite parent is no more; the glue that binds them all is gone. The parent left behind is difficult and bitter, unable to fathom the fact that life moves on. Goodbye might have you believe that it’s a mainstream version of Ram Prasad Ki Tehrvi (2021), Seema Pahwa’s beautifully observed drama, rooted in the ritualistic nature of grief – where an untimely death briefly brings together different generations of a distant family under a single roof. All through, a widow grows wary of the performative punctuations of loss. But this comparison is too flattering. If you look closer, Goodbye is nothing but a spiritual sequel of Baghban (2003), arguably the most culturally-entitled Indian melodrama of this century. Consider a universe in which Amitabh Bachchan’s character simply grows old, loses his loving wife, and then guilt-trips his adult children for not caring like he does.
Directed by Vikas Bahl, who has been mired in controversy since 2018, Goodbye is defined by a clash of ideologies and every character becomes an exaggerated stereotype. The daughter, Tara (a so-so Rashmika Mandanna), is introduced as a hard-partying lawyer who lives on her own terms – in a big city, with a Muslim boyfriend, a tattoo on her wrist, and the fiery conviction to question every patriarchal custom she sees during the funeral. In a more nuanced film, Tara might have been the protagonist whose uncompromising outlook influences the men around her. Yet, here she is someone with the scope for ‘improvement’ – she’s too woke, and therefore a sitting duck for moral lessons meted out by random pandits (“people need stories – mythology – to feel better”) on the riverbanks of Varanasi. Her journey is proof of the film’s safe stance; she isn’t allowed to get away with her dissenting attitude. Ditto for the oldest son, Karan (Pavail Gulati), who is actually a successful man married to a nice foreigner (Elli AvrRam) in a faraway land, but is instead framed as a flimsy corporate hotshot who discusses an important presentation on his earbuds while shouldering his mother’s body. He uses terms like “wrapping it up” on the phone to make viewers sense that perhaps the stubborn traditionalism and small-mindedness of the father – grumpy old Harish Bhalla (Bachchan) – isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Goodbye pits the father’s conservatism – the irony of the Hirani-style term he ultimately coins for dying, “right turn,” is lost on the makers – against his kids’ pragmatism. Unlike Baghban, it doesn’t demonise the young to glorify the old. It does something worse, if that’s even possible. It reduces something as shapeless as grief to a superficial statement on Indian society and acceptance. The film adopts a cloyingly centrist approach, choosing to suggest that meeting halfway is perhaps the key to Happy Hindu Familyhood. The argument – which goes on the lines of “Not believing in something doesn’t make it wrong” – is dangerously familiar.
The message is far from organic; it’s visibly derived from the fear of taking a stand. ("Jai kal Mahakaal" is one of the film’s final songs, further informing composer Amit Trivedi’s astonishing slump in form). As a result, Goodbye becomes the second Hindi film of the week to employ a woman as a device to trigger a diplomatic awakening. In Maja Ma, the state of Gujarat is exoticised to soften the blow of a middle-aged woman’s coming-out tale; in Goodbye, her death is fetishised to teach viewers that nobody is wrong. (Even if someone is). This film is so desperate to be a tearjerker that it just stops short of dunking our heads in buckets of glycerine. At times, it almost works. But that’s not a hard thing to achieve these days, given that the finality of death – featuring long-drawn funerals, flashbacks, happy memories, a sad dog (named Stupid) – is far more pronounced in a post-pandemic world. The prospect of a parent dying always gets me, but does that mean the film itself is effective?
As is evident, the string-pulling in Goodbye is too contrived to be an honest snapshot of healing. Tara’s transformation is unnecessary to begin with, but when it comes through a Sunil Grover-played sage, it’s shabbily staged and executed; the sight of a ukulele in tandem with Hare Krishna Hare Rama chants makes for one of the most half-baked moments of the quarter-baked film. It never helps that the core background theme sounds a lot like Falguni Pathak’s iconic Nineties’ hit, “Maine Payal Hai Chhankai”. Characters even appear as comic relief, almost as if Goodbye were shy of getting too real – four gossipy Punjabi women straight out of Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page 3 (2005) wonder if they should name their Whatsapp group “Gone Gayatri Gone” or “Lonely Harish”; Ashish Vidyarthi overplays the know-it-all family friend who takes charge of all the superstitions and rituals. Every other emotion is milked to the point of dehydration. At one point, a birthday dance troupe (?) prearranged by the late Gayatri (a fleeting Neena Gupta) to mark Harish’s 70th, perform a song that sounds more at home in a movie like Raju Chacha (2000). This scene is promptly followed by the arrival of yet another family member who is blissfully oblivious of the tragedy. He is allowed to roam the entire house with the sort of puppy-like excitement that feels more at home in a hamfest like Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon (2003), until he is finally – finally – told that Gayatri is gone. By then, my ears were burning with second-hand embarrassment.
Perhaps the only bright spot in this misfire is Bachchan’s performance as the man struggling to confront a future without his too-good-to-be-true wife. The famous Bachchan monologue here emerges in the form of a heartbreaking plea to an urn of ashes – a smart subversion of legend, especially because the Bollywood superstar somehow finds a way to shed those trappings and sound different (a cracked voice; a quivering lip) after all these decades. It reveals a desire to keep learning at an age most actors succumb to the muscle-memory of their craft. He turns Harish into the only flesh-and-blood person in a film full of cutouts and algorithmic writing. Unfortunately, his parts are much lesser than the sum of this non-committal narrative. Which is to say: Goodbye takes that right turn only to swerve into a cow on a crowded street. I did hear plenty of sniffles and sore throats in the cinema hall. So I promptly put my mask back on.