Saturday, December 19, 2009

On Paa, a time-eating grasshopper and an old fox

Watched Paa a few weeks ago and liked it overall. Made my peace early on with the fact that it isn’t a “Progeria film” – that the medical condition is mostly incidental to the Parent Trap-style story about a child reuniting his estranged parents (and, in this case, validating his own sense of self by getting them to do the “round and round” of the saat pheras). The film makes the very deliberate decision to race though the first 12 years of Auro’s life, not lingering on the complications he and his mother would have faced during this period: his adjustment problems in school, how his classmates would initially have reacted to him. And it’s notable that when it does have to confront the implications of Progeria full-on (in Auro’s prolonged death scene, complete with Dogme-style handheld-camera close-ups as he fades away), the tone of the scene is inconsistent with the rest of the movie.

When I saw the extensive pre-publicity, I suspected that the main purpose for this film’s existence was the gimmick of getting Senior B to play Junior B’s son. “Is there a medical condition that would allow us to do this plausibly?” one could imagine R Balki asking his writers, “Go forth and research!” The project threatened to be an embarrassment, but thankfully that’s turned out not to be the case. This is a well-made, nicely written movie, and Bachchan Sr’s performance, aided by the great makeup, makes it possible to forget for long stretches about who’s doing the role. Apart from the incongruity of Auro being a six-footer (not a Progeria symptom as far as I know), I came away thinking that there’s no particular reason why this kid shouldn’t have been played by the 67-year-old superstar.

The film’s most poignant subtext (though it isn’t explicitly stated) is that Vidya Balan’s character, almost from the moment that she becomes a mother, must cope with the knowledge that her child’s life will run along a different time-scale from her own; that he will pass through every physical stage of his life and eventually die – of old age – at a time when she herself is a relatively young woman. The last thing any parent wants is to outlive their child, but she is preparing for this from the time of his birth. It's a desperately tragic situation, but the film does also suggest that this knowledge brings a greater intensity to their relationship; they have to make the most of whatever time there is. (For this reason, the recurring split-second shot of the Cambridge grasshopper clock – or the “time eater” – is an apt visual symbol. And the flashback scene that goes with the song “Udhi Udhi Ittefaq Se”, where the grasshopper makes its first appearance, is a fine example of condensed storytelling.)

On a personal note now: as Abhilasha and I came out of the hall, our conversation was less animated than it normally is when we’re talking about a film we’ve both liked – and without getting maudlin about it, we both knew why. You don’t have to be the parent of a Progeria-afflicted child to be able to empathise with the broad situation that the Vidya character is in.

If you’ve seen the Foxie posts on this blog, you might have guessed where this is heading.

Our canine kid is one-and-a-half human years now, and assuming she has a reasonably full dog-life she’ll probably leave us around the time we are in our mid-40s. But things will start to happen before then. Another five years and she’ll be older, relatively speaking, than us.

For a long time now, the highlight of my daily routine has been taking Foxie down to the local park in the evening and throwing a tennis ball around for her: marveling at the concentration in her darting eyes and the way she follows my hand movements like a goalkeeper when I feign throwing the ball in one direction, then throw it in the other; watching her paw the ground impatiently or even jump up to snatch the ball out of my hand when she thinks I’m taking too long over the throwing business. Clouds of dust rise as she tears after it (and she really does tear – she’s a bloody energetic dog). Sometimes when it rolls away in the distance she pretends not to be interested, but then when I jog across to pick it up she stealthily races up behind me, gets to it first, looks up at me as if to say “You old slow-coach!”, and then bounds away with it.

At these times I feel like a middle-aged daddy huffing and puffing away, unable to keep up, but a time will come when she isn’t the energetic adolescent pup she is now. Her reflexes will be less quick than mine. That will be difficult to deal with, especially because it’ll be a reminder that her clock is ticking away.

For solace, I think about others who have articulated similar feelings. In his autobiography Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins (which I blogged about here) the actor Rupert Everett reflected on his years in the company of a beloved dog. “As he gets older you become younger, so that in the end he is a grandfather and you are a thoughtless child. In denial of his great age you force him to do things, to keep going and he looks at you with the eyes of an elder, sitting in the shade of the village oak...but he still obeys instructions...” And Arthur C Clarke’s beautiful, heartfelt short story “Dog Star” is about a man who must accept a prestigious research position on an observatory on the Moon, at the cost of leaving behind his beloved dog – the living being he is closest to. “The choice was simple. I could stay on Earth and abandon my career. Or I could go to the Moon – and abandon her... After all, she was only a dog. In a dozen years she would be dead, while I should be reaching the peak of my profession. No sane man would have hesitated over the matter, yet I did hesitate, and if by now you do not understand why, no further words of mine can help.”

P.S. As I wrote in my ancient Sandy post, it can be a lonesome business being closer to an animal than you are to most humans. People often give you strange looks if you express your real feelings, so you end up making light of things – shrugging and saying things jokingly as if they don’t really matter, when they actually matter a great deal. Just the other day I was exchanging empathy notes with a friend who’s in a similar position. She and her husband treat their human child and their dog as equals (with the caveat that the human kid, aged ten, is relatively independent now, spends most of his time playing video games and is already heading for a life-stage where parents won’t be very important to his scheme of things, while the dog will be completely dependent on them till the end of his life). But it’s very difficult for them to share these thoughts even with close friends - unless the friends also happen to feel the same way - because the typical reactions are derisive laughter or criticism. Defensiveness ends up being your default mode. Halfway through writing this post, I was already thinking about trolls who would decide to feel “offended” because I’m drawing a connection between a Progeria-suffering human being and an animal. Well, tough.


  1. Why bother about people getting offended when you know that anyone who's had a pet would completely understand what you mean. So, please keep those nuggets about Foxie coming...

    But yes, I can so relate to the defensive stance we often take to just dilute the reactions of those who've never had a pet...

    Having lost my pet (our family of four consisted of my brother, a German Spitz) last year, after 16 years of having him around...all three of us who've been left behind still remember his sprightly days...the last few years...then become unbearable to recall.

  2. ...anyone who's had a pet would completely understand what you mean

    Anon: sadly, not "anyone who's had a pet". There's no dearth of people who've had a pet (because it's fashionable, or because three-year-old Pappu wanted a puppy) and then treated it like a stuffed toy that occasionally needs to be fed - as discussed in this post.

    But thanks for the comment, and condolences on your loss.

  3. its wonderful to read something so marvellously personal. ur words indicate such deep levels of attachments to foxie :) truly lucky i must say foxie is :)

  4. The movie Marley and me, though not flawless, does depict a energetic dog getting old. I have never had a pet but could sympathize with the feelings of the lead characters.

  5. Did you see this?

    Found out there why dogs are able to catch balls so well: they see more frames per second than us. And, fascinatingly, for that reason and because of their reliance on smell, their "window on the present" is much wider than ours--so even if they do age faster, it all appears to last longer.

  6. i thought i was the only one who felt gratitude towards the canine species: they have allowed us to domesticate them and keep them as companions, to demand total subservience and loyalty, a total loss of their freedom and identity. all this for some show of affection and appreciation, food and shelter - if they are fortunate. otherwise, they are a social acquisition, a selfish and cruel child's toy, forced to snarl and guard contrary to their docile nature. could we please have psychological testing before humans are allowed ownership of a rare and gentle life-form?

  7. Nice post! While we are at it, here's something you'll enjoy:

  8. Gautam, Vivek: thanks for those very enjoyable links. Have also been reading Peter Singer on animal liberation.

    could we please have psychological testing before humans are allowed ownership of a rare and gentle life-form?

    MS: I hope you mean psychological testing of the humans involved? Preferably the medieval way, with spikes and chains and things!

  9. Both can happen na ? Most likely Balki did research a medical condition just so he could pull off a casting coup, BigB as LittleB's son. It also incidentally turned out to be a wellmade film.

    The problem with the Balki's of the world is that they are bent upon taking uniquely southie music & reinventing them for the north. With ARR, you don't have that problem because his compositions are different for a hindi movie eg RDB. But Raaja is a hardcore southie, his tunes and their range suits southie style lyrics. Attaching hindi words to them is just not right. You get garbage like udi udi mudi mudi etc. Balu made the same mistake with Sadma. Surmayi Akhiyon Main cannot hold a candle to Kanna Kalaimaane since the intent, melody and meaning are all sacrificed just to come up with hindi lyrics to fit a well-known southern tune. There's prolly a list somewhere of incredibly good songs that have become an embarrassment after undergoing this translation torture. And the Balki's of the world want to add to that list.

  10. This post about Foxie reminds me of the setting in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being". Milan Kundera stirs one's emotions with his description of death of Karenin, his pet dog.

  11. There was considerable understatement in the film , however the film felt as if it was made to gain a certain sympathy for the lead character and this overall sentiment tended to prevail over the rest of this film's shortcomings.

    I also felt that Abhishek's political journey was added as an afterthought in the film and was quite carelessly tossed about, as was his acceptance about 'Auro' being his child. The acceptance speech was puerile by even hindi movie standards. The good thing about the movie started and ended with 'Auro's character. Amitabh in his this role was not outstanding as many people generally claimed , I believe that over a systematic period of the last ten years , Amitabh has tended to go from incorrigible hamming to acceptable performances.

    This one is acceptable , and that is all really to it. I felt that this film tried too hard to be profound but ended up bordering on the thin line between the moribund and mundane.

  12. testing of humans, of course!! couldn't subject the canines to such indignities.

  13. I was born into a household of four big dogs and watched them die before I reached my tenth birthday. I don't play with unknown dogs or even feed strays but can understand how deep the pain of losing a pet can go.

    On the other hand, I must admit our two goldfish have completely failed to, er, sound my depths. They look so silly!

  14. Or you impotent, Sir > Or merely important ?Why have a pet when you can have a child.

  15. Hmmm, haven't seen Paa yet.. but it made me wonder if anyone in Bollywood is going to make a movie on The Moor's Last Sigh next. The mind boggles!
    Oh, and yes indeed, please do keep those Foxie-posts coming in!
    Looking forward to your year-end post now! :-D

  16. Keep posting stuff like this i really like it.