Director: Sooraj Barjatya
Writers: Sunil Gandhi, Abhishek Dixit
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Anupam Kher, Boman Irani, Sarika, Neena Gupta, Parineeti Chopra, Danny Denzongpa
In Uunchai, Amitabh Bachchan plays a famous author who writes books for young people without really understanding them. Anupam Kher plays a stubborn bookshop owner who holds out in the face of an upcoming mall, and wonders why time can’t stand still. Boman Irani plays a dutiful man bound by a cripplingly interdependent marriage. The three friends are essentially Sooraj Barjatya characters whose conflict is that they are Sooraj Barjatya characters. Tradition is their weakness. In other words, Uunchai is Barjatya’s attempt at ‘confessional cinema’ – a self-reflective genre marked by veteran filmmakers willing to challenge their own legacy while grappling with the fear of aging, mortality and grief. You can see it in Bachchan’s recent roles, too. After Goodbye, this is the second consecutive film in which he’s mourning the loss of a loved one and wrestling with the concept of change. Credit where it’s due: It’s not easy to be old and vulnerable, less so in India, where experience and ego are a match made in hell.
But the problem with Uunchai is that it preaches more than it practices. It likes the idea of being subversive more than actually being subversive. Trust a Rajshri film to introspect about the Rajshri template in Rajshri Productions style. It’s self-defeating and unintentionally ironic at best, but also a waste of a story that might have sung in the hands of a more flexible director. Given that this country isn’t exactly known for a free-spirited retirement culture, the premise – of three old Delhiites setting out to do the Everest Base Camp trek to fulfill the wish of their late Nepali friend – is almost promising. Naturally, the journey – first the road trip to Kathmandu, then the two-week trek itself – will transform Amit (Bachchan), Om (Kher) and Javed (Irani) before it’s too late. The intent is there, but the painfully basic treatment reveals old habits that are unwilling to die softly.
For starters, notice the titles of Amit’s best-selling books: Fly High, Breathe & Breathe, Possibility. How are the writers of this film any different from the millennial-appropriating, Insta-loving author within the film? Then, notice the running time of Uunchai. It’s 2022, this is a narrative featuring vintage characters who try to evolve, but the film itself is stuck in an era where movies that have no business being 168 minutes long decide to casually be 168 minutes long. Then, the setup. The film’s idea of foreboding is to have the doomed character smile a lot and say “I’m dead serious, yaar” minutes before dying. Then the neglection of smaller details like: Is everyone rich? Amit is wealthy, late friend Bhupen (Danny Denzongpa) was fairly loaded too, Om is middle-class, and Javed is somewhere in between. But money on this super-expensive trip never comes up. In a regular Sooraj Barjatya film, this wouldn’t be an issue – they arrive with a default level of opulence and privilege. But this is a Barjatya film that wants to be more culturally authentic and honest, so why not extend that to its physical identity as well? Then there’s the unnecessarily long road trip with pit stops at Kanpur, Lucknow and Gorakhpur. The mountaineering-movie nut in me came prepared to watch three old-timers find themselves on an arduous climb against all odds – but the mountains, you see, are steeper in their heads. It’s not my fault if it sounds corny.
For a film that bats against antiquity, it still finds the time to yell at young people and women. Not literally yell, but you get the gist: Uunchai in the streets, Baghban in the sheets. For instance, the merry gang – including Javed’s wife (an adorable Neena Gupta) – arrive, unannounced, at Javed’s daughter’s mini-mansion in Kanpur. The plan is to drop off the wife (because there is apparently no place for women on old-boys’ trips either), and move onto Nepal without her knowledge. But the daughter and her dashing husband have their own party plans, which leads to a sad-emoji scene of the parents being asked to book a hotel instead. (I was reminded, not unfondly, of Aa Ab Laut Chalein). Amit does explain to them the next day that it was their fault to drop in without prior warning, and that times have changed. But his reasoning is half-hearted; you can tell that the film is reluctantly pretending to sound balanced about generational conflict. One of the plot points – about a female guest (Sarika) tagging along – involves the men casually going through her suitcase in a hotel as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. It’s like the makers can’t help but reset to (Bollywood) tradition when the going gets tough.
The young-bashing extends into the mountains, where expedition leader Shraddha (Parineeti Chopra) – whose make-up never lags even when her attitude does – questions the fitness and purpose of her three old clients, only for them to repeatedly prove her wrong. The rest of the group is made of young people who look like students marching to a music festival rather than serious trekkers. Nobody sweats. The lipstick never fades. At one point, it’s the old gang who teaches the kids how to climb with better technique – which isn’t a problem per se, but it’s just another example of how the film is hopelessly insecure beneath that veneer of vulnerability and courage. To top it all, Amit’s arc – featuring a hidden personal life – is terribly forced, throwing around terms like “depression” and “alzheimer's” as if they were chocolate-dust toppings for humble pie. The writing lacks the emotional intelligence to deal with such conditions, never mind the tradition-versus-modernity war it inadvertently wages on itself.
It doesn’t help one bit that Amit Trivedi’s autopilot anthem music sounds as uninspired as Everest looks. Such is the dated craft: I’ve seen more intimidating peaks in Lonavala. It also annoyed me that I didn’t spot a single mountain goat during their trek. When I thought about it later, it made sense: Goat implies mutton, and mutton goes against the DNA of vegetarian storytelling – which is what Rajshri Productions pride themselves on. (No kebabs were shown in Lucknow either). I also thought about what the film might have looked like if not for this stubborn sanitization of life. Here’s who the characters really were. Amit is probably a narcissistic plagiarist with a drinking problem that scared his wife away. Javed is probably a serial cheater, which is why his wife is so jealous and possessive. Om is probably a former RSS worker who is now atoning for his ideological sins by befriending (or beef-friending) Javed. And the late bachelor Bhupen probably died in the closet. As I said, the foundation and intent of Uunchai exist. But mountains aren’t scaled with intent – and intellectual veganism – alone.