Director: Shonali Bose
Cast: Priyanka Chopra, Farhan Akhtar, Zaira Wasim, Rohit Suresh Saraf
In the iconic 1975 film Sholay, the only son of an elderly, blind man is murdered by the dacoit Gabbar Singh. After absorbing the shock, weeping softly and listening to the villagers debate on what is to be done, Imaam Saab says: Jaante ho duniya ka sabse bada bojh kya hota hai? Baap ke kandhon par bete ka janaza. Isse bhari bojh koi nahi hai. The last 40 minutes or so of The Sky is Pink capture this crushing weight of death. The finality of losing someone, the rage and helplessness at being unable to prevent it, the emptiness of loss and the morbid practical questions – what do you do with the clothes, where do photographs go? What, this film asks us to consider, is the right way to grieve? When Aisha, only 18 and played by the endearing Zaira Wasim, dies, you feel the bojh. But you also come away admiring the tenacity and will of her parents – Niren and Aditi. They deal with the death of not one but two children and in the process, become champions of life.
These are not spoilers. The Sky is Pink is based on the true story of Aisha Chaudhary who was born with SCID, a rare genetic disorder. She eventually died of Pulmonary Fibrosis, which was a side-effect of her treatment for SCID. Aisha's parents valiantly sacrificed their lives to help their daughter live longer. Niren and Aditi spent years living apart, they worked tirelessly to raise the money for treatment, at one point Niren even begged for donations on the radio, Aditi researched every possible cure and doctor and robotically disinfected surfaces that Aisha touched to prevent her from getting an infection because even a cold could prove fatal. They tried not just to keep her alive but also to keep her happy. At one point, Aditi was micro-managing her daughter's crush on a schoolmate. To keep her daughter breathing and smiling, she essentially became the helicopter parent from hell.
Rather than death, director and co-writer Shonali Bose focuses on the couple and their courage. Which is wise because Niren and Aditi's relationship endures unimaginable pressures. In interviews, Shonali said that everything we see in the film is true, that it's based on hours of interviews with the parents, especially Aditi. The film was made with the support and approval of the Chaudharys. And that perhaps is what has blunted its edges. The Sky is Pink is sincere and heartfelt but it never gets raw or messy. Until that final stretch, it doesn't pierce your heart the way this subject should.
Shonali's superpower as a director is an unsentimental gaze that enables us to view uncomfortable situations with empathy. Her last film Margarita with a Straw was also about a family dealing with a debilitating situation – the elder daughter Laila has cerebral palsy. The film grappled with that, cancer, Laila being bisexual and her heartbreaking bond with her dying mother. There is a wonderful scene on the terrace when Laila is trying to tell her mother that she is bisexual but she's having trouble saying the word so she only manages bi and her mother comes back with: Main kya kaam bai hoon? and starts ranting about how badly behaved Hindustani men are. It's hilarious and touching.
In The Sky is Pink, this lightness of being is replaced by an all-pervasive cuteness. The film frantically jumps timelines over three decades, even going back to Niren and Aditi's romance and marriage. To make sense of the back and forth, we get a posthumous narrator – Aisha herself, who in death, like she was in life, remains perky, irreverent and determinedly cheery. She calls Aditi Moose and Niren Panda, which becomes cloying very quickly. Aisha talks, a lot – the VO is by co-writer Nilesh Maniyar. We get lines like: kaunse aise germs hain jo Moose se panga lete or Moose ki Poonch thi Panda. She frequently comments on her parents' sex life and gives us 'fun facts.' In many scenes, Shonali builds to an emotion, which is then undercut by Aisha explaining what has happened or cuing in the next scene. The VO becomes a distraction.
Until now, Shonali's storytelling had naturalistic textures, which served her tough subjects well. The Sky is Pink opts for a glossy aesthetic. There are speedboats, swanky homes, sweeping top shots of London and the Andamans. Mother and daughter bond over mischievous shopping expeditions. And no matter what the characters are grappling with, they are impeccably styled. Aditi goes to hell and back but her hair, make-up and clothes stay on point. Apart from the changing hairstyles, there is little to suggest her age – in once scene, she is supposed to be 50. Niren becomes weathered by the trauma but Aditi's anguish is barely reflected in her demeanour. This varnish undermines the authenticity of the emotions. The background music by Mikey McCleary is purposefully jaunty and counterintuitive to some of the situations on screen but this strategy works in only fits and starts.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas, here on double duty as actor and co-producer, is fierce and dazzling as the mother who will do whatever it takes to outrun death. But Farhan Akhtar as the father has more impact because he allows us to see his vulnerability and exhaustion. Rohit Suresh Saraf as Aisha's brother Ishaan, also does well.
The Sky is Pink deals with extreme anguish but it feels too sanitized. Still, at the end, when you see photos of the real Aisha, Ishaan, Niren and Aditi, the weight of their tragedy and force of their indomitable spirit hits home. I just wish I had felt that through the film.