Director: Shonali Bose
Cast: Priyanka Chopra, Farhan Akhtar, Zaira Wasim, Rohit Suresh Saraf
There’s the dying girl and her long-suffering family. The Sky Is Pink is based on a true story. It’s the sort of heartbreaking and heartwarming story you might hear and exclaim, “Damn, this is what movies are made of.” But when you see the movie, it’s hard to locate in it the language of life. When you see the fiction, it’s hard to tell whether the facts are being exploited or celebrated.
That’s probably the point of the quintessential terminal drama. Most storytellers don’t set out to replicate a difficult experience as much as reclaim it. I don’t think the emotional manipulation is deliberate; it’s in the DNA, because the makers are at once examining and escaping the prospect of impending grief. It’s personal, but in a different way. The heightened happiness and sugar-coated sadness are instinctive devices, like a defence mechanism aimed at controlling – and seizing – a narrative that hinges on uncontrollables like death and illness. So you see a grammar that might be therapeutic for the makers, but overbearing to viewers: A Spunky Dying Girl ™, a cheery voice-over, a quirky background score, overlong montages, a bucket-list phase, a voice-from-the-grave video, a last-gasp romance/bromance.
But I like the lens that director Shonali Bose (Amu, Margarita With A Straw) and co-writer Nilesh Maniyar have chosen. The family is usually a peripheral factor in these happy-sad stories (Love Story, 50/50, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Fault in Our Stars). Here, the family is the story. The parents, forever the silent side-liners of cinematic tragedies, are the story. The nature of caregiving is so mercilessly linear and selfless that a non-linear narrative becomes the only way to inform a traditionally selfish medium. Aisha (Zaira Wasim) is already dead when the film begins; the first frame shows her middle-aged parents, Aditi (Priyanka Chopra) and Niren (Farhan Akhtar), in mourning months after she’s gone. What follows is essentially a biopic of this couple – spanning over 25 years – told in the voice of their late daughter, a girl who sounds abnormally lively for a person who (literally) isn’t. But you get why young Zaira Wasim channels the smugness of that Cheeni Kum kid. You get why she sounds this way (“main nahi tapkungi”) – it’s irritating, yes, but Aisha’s persona is tailored to overcompensate for the guilt she feels for hijacking their lives. This is the Hindi film equivalent of, say, Jenny reverse-narrating Oliver’s story in her smart-alecky tone. (“What can you say about a 25-year-old boy who loved a girl who died? That he was handsome. And brilliant.”)
Given that she has been the crippling centre of attention all her life, Aisha in her afterlife chooses to shine a spotlight on the two people who have sacrificed their identity for her – almost as if to remind them of their individuality, their youth, their aspirational sense of companionship. Each timeline acts as a memory assembled to override the intensity of their situation. Which is why their early love story plays out like a small-town romance. Their early parenthood, across Chandni Chowk and London, plays out like a testy long-distance relationship. Their late parenthood plays out like a dysfunctional marriage. Their post-Aisha parenthood plays out like a stalled arrangement struggling to transition back to marriage.
This allows Akhtar and Chopra to be their breezy Bollywood selves, as a couple both united and confined by circumstances. Chopra, like she has before, plays several women – or several shades of the same woman – with disarming ease. She is charming as the conflicted lover, and affecting as the paranoid mother with a morality problem. Aisha’s perspective makes the narrative (1988, 1996, 2008-10, 2015) greedy and broad, flitting between urgent moments and languid scenes. But it also allows the film to confront adult problems that can only have been depicted through intimate experience (Bose herself has lost a son). For instance, a bereaved Aditi is at odds with Niren because his coping mechanism involves moving to London (like a mainstream movie), and hers involves occupying a void after losing the person who defined the way she existed (like an indie). As a mother, her sense of family was derived from the crisis they shared. With Aisha and her illness gone, the glue binding them together is gone. Suddenly, life feels too easy – and empty.
From a viewer’s standpoint, these portions may feel abrupt and tangential. But from a daughter’s standpoint, you can see why it’s important. The songs, the emotions, the spats, the sappy popcorn ending – the teenager wants to tell us that her parents are more than their tragic parenthood. They’re more than her oxygen tanks and allergic reactions. They’re the film we seldom see. The downside: You sense that Aisha, in her pursuit of deifying her family, often plays down her own fate. She turns herself into a cosy side note, even though her condition is inextricably linked to theirs. Every time the family dares to spread their wings, reality bites: They’re at a party when she first collapses, they’re on a holiday flight when she has a stroke. This is reflected in how every time the movie spreads its wings, Aisha’s commentary pulls it down. It has to be mentioned that the voiceover itself – Aisha nicknames her father Panda and mother Moose – is awfully self-conscious, like a sunny motivational program coming to life (or not). And also very distracting: By the time one remembers which one is Panda and who is Moose, the information has passed and we’re playing catch-up for the rest of the scene. At least the older brother (Rohit Suresh Saraf) is called Giraffe; technically, he is impossible to miss.
The film gets its title from a familiar scene. The son, weeping over the phone, tells Aditi how his teacher punished him for painting the sky pink in drawing class. “The sky can be any colour you want it to be,” Aditi responds. This is not practical, but it’s pretty advice. It inadvertently reveals a message hidden within the lead actors’ chemistry: A lot in life – including logic and marriage – is reversible, but parenthood is not. Her words more accurately reflect how most filmmakers think that a story about death can be of any form, any tone, any colour it wants to be. That truth can be beyond criticism. In a way, they aren’t wrong – but you don’t make a movie that advertises this immunity in every frame.
I, for one, cannot comprehend the sweet sentimentality of this genre, but I hate that I’m consistently moved by its heart-on-sleeve cheesiness. To draw an appropriate analogy: The makers are like the father who uses his overripe imagination to help his son survive a Nazi concentration camp, and us viewers are the little boy. That’s the nature of the beast. Life is Beautiful…even when it’s not.