WTF ASIA 56: 15 Park Avenue (2006)

Well, last week’s movie was a difficult one. So here is…well…another difficult one…ahem…but, hey. It is mostly in English.

Available online. Approximately 125 minutes.

 

Anu (nickname for Anjali) is driving her sister Meethi (nickname for Mitali) around the city of Kolkata in search of her house, 15 Park Avenue. They end up on Balliganch Park Road, which Meethi insists is the old name for Park Avenue. She wants to look for the house, but Anu’s impatience with her sister becomes too much and she turns the car around. She has a class to teach and their brother is coming to visit with his family. Anyways, there is no 15 Park Avenue in Kolkata. Meethi is not lying, though. She has schizophrenia.

Anu has spent the last several years of her life taking care of sister Meethi and their elderly mother. Between taking care of the two of them, along with working as a physics professor, Anu has sacrificed her own opportunities at a personal life, which frustrates her sort-of boyfriend. Anu’s younger brother is busy taking care of his own family, including a baby.

By this point, Meethi believes that she is married to Joydeep, her ex-fiance from years ago. After seeing a news report about President George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein, her story has Joydeep being in the Middle East because of the war. Her brother and his children find this amusing, but the other adults are exasperated. As for Meethi, she is determined to go back to her house at 15 Park Avenue so she can take care of her five children, and she feels as if her sister and mother are keeping her prisoner in their house.

One day, while Anu is bestowing scientific knowledge upon her young students, her mother invites some sort of religious figure into the house to cure Meethi. He acts rough towards her, pretty much further traumatizing her. Yet, her mother does nothing but cry as the maid tries to convince her that this was the right thing to do. Meethi tries to explain what had happened to Anu when she returns home, but the maid denies all of it. When Meethi tries to explain herself, the story gets incorporated into Meethi’s strange narrative. So Anu dismisses the entire episode as just another delusion and acts hostile towards her dejected sister. Not long after this, Meethi cuts herself (this is not the first time) and has to be hospitalized. It is there that their mother admits what she did. Anu is upset at herself for not believing her sister, but the damage is done.

Anu and her brother meet with Meethi’s new doctor, named Barua, who asks when this all started. So, Anu explains.

Born eighteen years after Anu, Meethi had experienced mild hallucinations since she was a child. Her condition had hardly been notable when she was younger, with certain episodes being dismissed as silly quirks. All in all, she lived a rather normal and functional well-to-do childhood. She had trouble staying in one line of work during her twenties, though. At one point, Meethi had been institutionalized when she was especially suicidal, but Anu took her out of there about a year later when it seemed like she had calmed down. Their brother objected to taking her out of the institution, but Anu argues that he was not there.

One day, about eleven years ago, Meethi came to Anu at the university and asked for help for her assignment for a newspaper; she was going to interview people at a town that had just experienced political violence. Anu figured that Meethi was taking this job due to pressure from her then-fiance Joydeep, and told her not to go if she was nervous. Meethi goes there anyways, alone. She does her interviews, records them, and takes pictures.

 

And then…uh…

a group of political goons find her, abduct her, smash her equipment, and gang rape her in a hotel room for three hours.

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Right…

 

 

I should note that the movie does not show the act, but cuts to the hallway, where people wander in and out of other rooms, either with no knowledge of what is going on or no willingness to intervene. This total violation broke Meethi. While she would sort of recover physically, her schizophrenia manifested itself. Eventually, Joydeep, whom Anu was never comfortable with, walked out.

Doctor Barua tries to reassure Anu, telling her not to blame herself for what happened either recently or eleven years ago. He tells her that if she had latent schizophrenic tendencies even at a young age, then it may have eventually worsened even without such a traumatic experience. Anu starts to think that maybe it may not be fair to try to dispel her of her delusions at the expense of her happiness. Barua suggests that she try to relax and take a break.

Some time later, and over three hundred miles away, a man named Joydeep is vacationing in Bhutan with his wife and two young children. His daughter is mocking her little brother about his lack of understanding about Indian food or the country’s various languages. Suddenly, Joydeep sees a figure nearby. It is Meethi, the woman from a past life. The woman whom he loved. The woman whom he was going to marry. The woman whom he had left when she was at her lowest point in life. Just seeing her brings up all sorts of memories and feelings of extreme guilt. He tells his wife that he has to make a long distance call and that they should go back to the hotel without him.

 

As I said in the introduction, the majority of this movie is in English, though the movie has been dubbed into local Indian languages. I am not entirely certain, but I get the impression that using the English-language is an aspect of a subgenre of independent Indian films that caters towards a more…um…high-minded Indian filmgoer. While the subject matter itself may not necessarily be something that mainstream Bollywood or Tollywood or Kollywood could do, it is more the approach and tone. It largely deemphasizes big acting and melodrama, as well as the big dance numbers. It lets the characters be people and lets the story tell itself. They are not necessarily happy stories, but they are not the epic cathartic tearjerkers either. I suppose that there may be a bit of elitism in ignoring the masses for the…uh…people who favor English, but English IS an official language and a lot of people speak it in India…and it can be more politically palatable than Hindi is for those who speak minority languages. Or something; I am not an expert on this. I’ll just say that the English language has a complicated status in India and that extends to the entertainment media.

Feelings of guilt and responsibility form the main threads throughout this film. Anu feels guilty for letting Meethi get attacked and turn schizophrenic; thus, she feels obligated to take care of her younger sister. Joydeep feels guilty for abandoning Meethi when she may have needed him the most, and this colors his actions in the second half of the movie. Anu’s elderly mother does not have a large role in the movie, but it appears that she feels responsible for having Anu so late in life (from her second husband, by the way) and saddling her eldest daughter with so much hardship. There are a few characters who question such feelings of guilt. Meethi’s doctor suggests that Anu ease up and stop blaming herself for what happened years ago while Anu’s boyfriend suggests that she let it go. Joydeep’s wife is initially suspicious over his feelings for his Meethi, but they sort of gain some measure of understanding. Then there are the characters who seem to bare no burden of responsibility. The brother was content to get rid of Meethi and has been of no help. Then there are, of course, the men who used sexual violence to punish and humiliate a nosy outsider while people nearby feel no responsibility to stop what is obviously taking place.

The movie, though hardly fanciful, also talks about the limits of science and logic. Anu tries to be practical and reasonable in how she views things, but that way of doing things gets undermined with both practices of the past, emotional baggage, and the changing narrative of Meethi’s alternate reality. Even in the beginning, she is shown reluctantly going on what she believes is a wild goose chase for the elusive 15 Park Avenue, which Meethi most likely heard about from the Monopoly game. It is unclear whether she is subconsciously aware of her delusions, but she sometimes locks eyes with a homeless woman outside of the house; it is implied that they acknowledge that they both have psychological issues, but the homeless woman lacks the safety net of having a well-off and educated family that does what it can for her.

Aside from some questionable performances by the two kids who portray Joydeep’s children, this is a really good movie. The

rape-as-drama

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trope may be more troubling than it may have been necessary, and I am not sure how medically realistic this movie is, but it both adds to the ambiguity of what Meethi’s life might have been as well as treat the aftermath with respect and seriousness. The whole movie is dignified and gentle, except for maybe the moments about Saddam; they were kind of darkly comedic. Regardless, I believe that this is a really good film.

 

WTF ASIA 57: About Her Brother (Japan: 2010, approx. 126 minutes)

Wikipedia

Available online.

 

WTF ASIA 58: Butterfly (Hong Kong: 2004, approx. 129 minutes)

Wikipedia

Available online.