Karkhanisanchi Waari is a film about death but it revels in the glorious messiness and absurdity of life. This is established in the first few minutes. We are inside an ambulance with a body and three men mournfully chatting. When the driver brakes hard, the cotton inside the nostril of the dead man pops out and falls to the floor. One of the men gingerly picks it up with his toes, brings it up to his fingers and then sticks it back in. When the others give him a look, he sheepishly turns away, as if to say: What difference does it make? The guy is dead. It's unexpectedly hilarious.
And that is the secret sauce of this film – director Mangesh Joshi, who has written it with Archana Borhade, expertly juggles humour with heartbreak. Many films have used the trope of a funeral to bring together extended families – think of last year's Ramprasad ki Tehrvi, Pagglait or the British black comedy Death at A Funeral or even August: Osage County. Mangesh and Archana tweak the formula. The Karkhanis family doesn't need to assemble. They are a sprawling joint family with four generations living in the same house in Pune. A television program called My Family Best Family even celebrates their incredible bond. But the smiling faces are hiding schisms within.
The film marries the funeral trope with the road movie. Before dying, Puru dada, who was the family patriarch, makes one last wish – that his ashes be scattered at their ancestral home, their family farm and at the Chandrabhaga River in Pandharpur. So his three younger brothers, sister and son get into the car and start driving to the requested locations. Puru dada has left a sealed letter, which can only be opened once the ashes have reached their destination. The long drive and many hurdles along the way reveal each one's inner desires, their true feelings and motivations and the anger and resentment they have harboured in their hearts for decades. Meanwhile Puru dada's widow discovers that her husband wasn't all he seemed to be.
The secrets, which come tumbling out, include a same-sex relationship, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, divorce, financial ruin and more. The film has an overarching undercurrent of sadness. One of the most poignant moments is when Puru dada's son Om finally explodes. Om is an academic failure. His dreams don't fit into the narrow expectations imposed by the family. His relatives treat him with disdain but eventually Om's rage spills over and he speaks some harsh truths to his uncles and aunt. The scene is a grim reminder of how suffocating elders can be and how family flattens individuality. But even here, Mangesh sprinkles in humour. There is a moment with Puru dada's ashes that will make you laugh out loud.
In between the squabbling, the screenplay pauses for lyrical passages of quietude. One is when the siblings reach their ancestral home, which they left 25 years ago. They wander through the courtyard. One of the brothers sings a song that their mother used to sing. It's a lovely, aching moment filled with memory and loss. Their lives have been, in ways big and small, compromised. But the end suggests that perhaps Om, who represents the next generation, will assert himself and find happiness.
Karkhanisanchi Waari's English title is Ashes on A Road Trip, which is where much of the film takes place. Interestingly, Archana is one of the co-producers and also the film's DOP. Karkhanisanchi Waari has soaring overhead shots of the Western ghats. The lush greens heighten the tragi-comedy. The visuals also underline how tiny and insignificant the turmoil unfolding inside the moving car is. It's just one more dysfunctional family.
The film stars one of my favourite actors – Geetanjali Kulkarni, who you might know from the terrific series Gullak. Geetanjali has an acute talent for transparency. Her acting has authenticity but also such practiced ease that you never feel like she is acting. She is wonderful here. I also enjoyed Vandana Gupte as the widow Indira Karkahanis – there is such a look of melancholy, exhaustion and exasperation on her face. Mangesh gives her a moving moment in which she is throwing away her husband's medicines after his death. It's these little things that bring home the finality of losing someone.
Karkhanisanchi Waari reminds us to be kinder and more generous in our daily lives because eventually we are all heading to the same destination.
You can see the film on Sony LIV.