Monday, February 04, 2013

About Listen... Amaya

Memory, the many forms it can take and the different ways in which it moulds lives and relationships – this is a theme of the new film Listen... Amaya, which centres on a paradox: on one hand there is a young woman – described as “free-spirited” and leading an apparently modern, forward-looking life – who is trapped by the past, idealising her long-dead father to the extent that the thought of someone else sharing her mother’s bed is sacrilege; on the other hand, there is a much older person who believes – perhaps because his mind has begun playing tricks on him and his memories are slowly drifting away – that life is not just the sum total of your yaadein (“yaadein zindagi nahin hoti”), it is also about what lies ahead. And that memories can even be stored in photos and then tucked away for a bit while one sets out to create new experiences.

This tension between the young and the old – the girl is Amaya (Swara Bhaskar), the man is a photographer named Jayant/Jazz (Farooque Shaikh), friend and eventual lover to Amaya’s widowed mother Leela (Deepti Naval) – supplies the film’s main narrative arc. In Leela’s quaint little cafe-cum-library, the sort of place that has lately been mushrooming in the more hipster (or wannabe-hipster) quarters of Delhi, Amaya bonds with Jayant and they decide to do a coffee-table book together (she will write, he will take the pictures) - but things get complicated when the young woman realises that the two older people are more than just friends.

That Listen...Amaya will probably be a likable, charming film is something a viewer might guess beforehand. Much of its initial appeal, for a generation of Indians with fond memories of the so-called Middle Cinema of the early 1980s, lies
in seeing Deepti Naval and Farooque Shaikh together after all this time, and it is a whimsical, possibly unintended detail that a film about memory can be so enhanced by a viewer’s nostalgic relationship with these actors’ past work (it even tosses in a “Miss Chamko” reference, as if the point needed to be underlined). But to focus too much on the casting and the associations it creates in our minds might be to ignore how good Shaikh and Naval are here, in these roles, and how beautifully they have aged.

They are reasonably well-served by a film that acknowledges the value of its three principal performers (all of whom are terrific, though Bhaskar struggles with an under-written part in the second half) by giving each of them respectful long takes and held shots – including some shots where two people are in the frame, not “doing” very much, simply observing and reacting. Some of the best of these scenes are the ones with little dialogue (or little over-expository, “meaningful” dialogue), where a glance or gesture becomes an insight into the changing shades of a relationship. We see how the buddy-buddy rapport between mother and daughter (Amaya tells her mom about slapping a boss who made a sexual proposition, and Leela reacts stoically) gives way to friction when the young woman is unable to cope with the idea of her mother as a romantic or sexual person. We sense the emotional bond between the lovers – a bond that probably began with shared tragedy and loneliness but deepened into a love so clearly founded on friendship that one flinches at Amaya’s insensitivity when she asks her mother “Is it just about the sex?” – and we see the complex relationship between Amaya and Jazz as they explore the physical bazaars of Delhi, from Chandni Chowk to Hauz Khas Village, while also exploring their own private memory palaces. There is often a real sense for the small, throwaway moment, as in a scene where Jazz calls Leela from his landline to tell her “Mera phone kho gaya” and she reflexively responds “Kahaan?” before shaking her head at the silliness of what she’s just said (and meanwhile we see him silently spread his hand out in a “what the...” gesture, even though he knows she can’t see him).

But there could have been more of these moments, rather than the clunky psychoanalysis that weighs the story down. The film is also stifled by its tonal unevenness. There are jarring asides where side-characters play Greek chorus in increasingly annoying ways (starting with the guitar-wielding, coffee-loving, so-cute-you-want-to-strangle-them kids dancing in the cafe in the opening sequence, carrying on to a dead-on-arrival subplot about a couple who become entangled in the problems of the central trio). The often-intrusive background music is among the worst I have heard recently: what is with that terrible, ululating sound when Jazz recalls the accident that killed his wife and little daughter? (In any case, even at the level of the dialogue, the scene is prolonged and static.) The tribute-remix song “Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si” – the fantasy of a goofy, over-helpful young man with his Heart in the Right Place – is pleasant on its own terms (and nice to watch in a context removed from the film, such as on a music channel), but what is it doing here? (In a sense, of course, that question is as old as Hindi cinema, given the episodic structures of even our best commercial movies. But Listen... Amaya’s strengths lie in very different terrain, and if one comes to feel – as I did – that the sole reason for the existence of a song is to provide a marketable number for promos, well, it breaks the fourth wall in a not-very-good way.)

More than anything, and though I liked this film on the whole, I wish it had trusted its lead performers to carry it all the way through, and paid a little more attention to character development rather than piling on the cutesy side-shows. “There’s some magic in your coffee today,” those kids warble at “Mrs K” in that opening sequence. Yes, but also a little too much artificial sweetener.


  1. Loved your review. Although it's annoying to not be able to write like this. :)

  2. Deepa: thanks, but that is highly uncalled-for humility!

  3. Am serious. Your writing has an easy flow which I can't seem to achieve. Mine is laboured and ultimately dissatisfying.

  4. Jai, I'm not joking. I want your autograph.

  5. ... laboured and ultimately dissatisfying

    Deepa: I can't tell you how often I feel exactly the same way about my writing; it's just the curse of the navel-gazing, self-flagellating writer!

    But to quickly get back on-topic: with reference to your comment on FB, I can certainly undestand Mumbaikars marvelling at such large spaces, but I didn't think the setting was necessarily unrealistic for Delhi. Partly depends on how moneyed Mrs K is, I suppose.

  6. Will take your word for it. Both about the self-flagellation and abundance of lovely spaces in Delhi.

    I wanted it to be a better film though. All the ingredients were there, yet the peripheral characters and the pacing just dragged it down. Also, it seemed stagey in places. And then I marvelled at how well both Farooque and Deepti could hold long silences. The chemistry between them is the best thing I've seen at the movies in a long time -- barring Trintignant and Riva in 'Amour' who looked like they'd been tied at the hip for 50 years. That's great acting!

    So, flaws notwithstanding, this is one film I know I'll watch over and over again because it totally appealed to the sentimental fool inside. :)

  7. This reminds me of a memorable line in The Magnificent Ambersons in the letter that Eugene Morgan writes to Isabel Amberson -

    at twenty-one or twenty-two so many things appear solid and permanent and terrible which forty sees as nothing but disappearing miasma. Forty can’t tell twenty about this; that’s the pity of it! Twenty can find out only by getting to be forty

  8. Had no idea about this and now I learn that it is running only in PVR here in Chennai. Will try and check out before it leaves (that'll be in 3 days I guess).

  9. And out of topic....your man's man is back on a tennis court today. 2013 season is on.

  10. So, this was the film that was adorning the Fabindia page on Facebook some time ago.

    Neat review.


  11. hi

    I liked ur review and that cutie pie puppy on the home page is just too sweet! is that ur pet?