Tribahanga
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Director: Renuka Shahane
Writer: Renuka Shahane
Cast: Tanvi Azmi, Kajol, Kunaal Roy Kapur, Mithila Palkar
Cinematographer: Baba Azmi
Streaming on: Netflix

Tribhanga: Tedhi Medhi Crazy opens with a chaste biographer (Kunaal Roy Kapoor) interviewing his subject, Nayantara Apte (Tanvi Azmi). She is no descendent of Baburao Ganpathrao Apte, but a Marathi literary legend suffering from arthritis. He insists on filming her writing with a glass of scotch on her desk. A few scenes later, we see her daughter Anu (Kajol), a famous Bollywood-actress-turned-classical-dancer, backstage and fiddling with a pack of cigarettes. She used to be a smoker, so touching the tobacco is now enough for her. Another few scenes later, Anu is seen rushing to the hospital after Nayantara has a brain stroke. Filled with road rage, Anu screams (even her speaking is screaming, but we’ll come to that later) some choice Hindi swear words at unsuspecting motorists. 

So that’s three – alcohol, smokes, foul language – ticked off the progressive-Indian-woman checklist already. Later on during the flashbacks come the rest: divorce, sexual abuse, open marriage, live-in, Russian boyfriend named Dmitri, pregnant out of wedlock, single motherhood etc. No hashtag is spared to tell this story of three generations of an ‘unconventional’ family – featuring a 90s-TV-serial aesthetic, an impossibly simplistic narrative and an unbearably screechy lead performance. The saddest moment of the film is when that glass of scotch is knocked by a quaking Nayantara onto the carpet. What a waste of good spirit. 

The title is nice. It refers to an Odissi dance pose that’s messy but mesmerising, likely because Kajol’s other dysfunctional family drama had snatched up the more direct title ‘We Are Family’. The biographer exists so that the flashbacks are narrated rather than reminisced about in the hospital room with a comatose Nayantara. He also exists so that Anu can keep muttering terms like “jhaantu” and “fucker” (even her muttering is screaming, but we’ll come to that later). Anu is estranged from Nayantara, whom she addresses as Nayan instead of mom or mata, so naturally she will grow to appreciate the woman when the biographer reveals his recorded footage.

We soon learn that Nayantara was once an outlier in a regressive Maharashtrian setup: she was obsessed with writing, pissing off her mother-in-law and husband with her passion, and walking out on them after feeling stifled. This phase is punctuated by a classically bad scene where a female teacher humiliates small Anu in the classroom because she has her mother’s surname instead of her father’s. Like most writers, Nayantara makes some grave personal-life errors, dating predators and priests, whose brunt was borne by young Anu, who in turn embraces the film industry and a shady white man in a ‘hari om’ kurta. And so on and so forth. Not that it matters, but Anu’s daughter Masha (Mithila Palkar) undoes all the flashy feminism by marrying into a cripplingly conservative family. I see the ideas on paper, but the translation to screen lacks nuance, depth and any degree of emotional intelligence.

In some ways, the gaze – of a daughter belatedly starting to understand the progressive power of her mother – evokes that of the recent biopic, Shakuntala Devi, which told a similar story of familial conflict from the perspective of the famous mother. It’s a worthy device, meant to humanize the gift of genius, but both movies make a mess of the treatment. Not to mention the tone of the performances. After all these years, Kajol seems to still be stuck in big-screen mode, verbalising her character traits (feisty, unapologetic, aggressive) instead of internalizing them. She mistakes sound for noise and conversation for dialogue, with her face often reacting to a background score rather than a person. She plays the crudely outspoken Bollywood actress dealing with a crisis as if that actress herself were playing a crisis-stricken lady on stage. Mithila Palkar is wasted, the elegant Tanvi Azmi is reduced to piece-to-camera interviews and comatose silence, while Kunaal Roy Kapoor, who I’m very fond of, plays a pensive academic biographer as if he were parodying the idea of one. 

I must also mention the misguided final shot of the film, without spoiling it for anyone of course. It’s the trippiest shot ever – with the camera zooming into a frozen family portrait in which a character is seen holding a book whose cover is this same family portrait. So the camera goes into an infinite loop of zooming into the book and the portrait; it goes on for so long that the cyclical metaphor gets lost in an optical illusion of dizzy drunkenness. The drunkenness that comes from a cheap rum, not a fine scotch. Even the scotch is screaming, but we’ll come to that later.

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