Til Death Do All Relatives Reluctantly Gather Together.
We start in the house of Ramprasad and Savitri Bhargava. It is pretty large and pretty quiet, but it will seem less large and less quiet pretty soon.
Neighborhood kid Saksham is playing a haunting little piece on the piano in the bedroom, but the bedridden Ramprasad complains that the piano is out of tune. Savitri gives her husband his medication and tells Saksham that he should go home. But it is Ramprasad who tells Saksham to stay until he learns to play it correctly. Well, it is not Saksham’s fault that the piano is out of tune. This Ramprasad is kind of a jerk, and Amma starts to give him guff about turning the house into a junkyard and leaving her to do all of the cleaning. And then she leaves.
Despite being told to stay until he can play the tune correctly Saksham shuts the piano and tells Ramprasad that he will return the next day to…restring the piano? How old is this kid? Anyways…he says goodbye to Ramprasad. He also says goodbye to Savitri, who is busy cleaning up the kitchen and complaining about her husband, who has gone to the piano. Oh dear, he has fallen. Savitri, goes running back to the bedroom, calling Saksham, who has not yet left. They both try to shake Ramprasad awake…but…
It is the daytime and the family starts to arrive. I am going to be throwing out a lot of names and familial honorifics, so get ready. We first see Ramprasad’s third son Pankaj arriving with his wife Pratibha and their two little kids. They enter the house and are greeted by Rahul and Samay, Ramprasad’s adult grandsons, who help them with their luggage.
Pankaj goes over to Gajraj and Manoj, Ramprasad’s first and second sons. He embraces them before going to see Amma Savitri. Someone, probably someone hired for the funeral process, notes that the fourth son, Nishant, has still not arrived despite having been informed of his father’s death.
Pankaj’s wife and children are already with his mother and his father’s body, along with his father’s sisters, daughters, in-laws, and several other women. He kneels down to cry and bow to his father.
Pankaj returns to the courtyard where all the men are gathered. He once again hugs first brother Gajraj, who gently chides him for wearing blue instead of white. Pankaj asks about fourth brother Nishant, whom they call Neetu. Gajraj says that his flight got delayed, so he should be here by 4:00 pm. Hmmm…Pankaj got here by bus because the trains were all booked for Christmas vacation. Manoj and his family traveled all the way here by taxi, but they arrived on time, unlike Pankaj. Amma’s brother, or Pankaj’s Mamaji, comes over. Supposedly the first to arrive on the scene, he also quietly chides Pankaj for being late. Of course, he is more upset that Nishant is absent, not satisfied with the explanation that the flight was delayed. Gajraj reminds his uncle that he traveled less than 20 miles from Raebareli to Lucknow, whereas Nishant has to travel over 700 miles from Mumbai. Pankaj tries to extract himself from the argument by going to greet Prakaj, husband to first sister Rani, and Basant, husband of second sister Dhaani. Of course, before he can start a conversation with either of them, Gajraj comes over and starts to argue with Prakaj over how early he was to arrive.
Oh, look who finally decided to show up. Nishant. Gajrant’s son Rahul takes his uncle’s bag while someone notes that Nishant has arrived without his wife Seema.
Nishant goes to the body, and cries over it. His Mamiji (Mamaji’s wife, of course) refers to him as Amma’s favorite son and tells him to console his mother. Although, it looks more like Amma is consoling him. I think that his brothers are a little embarrassed to see him this way.
Ramprasad’s body is brought out to the courtyard for the men’s part of the of the funeral ritual. Unfortunately, his older brother, or the Tauji, kind of interrupts the proceeding with an emotional outburst in English. Apparently, the sons did not want their uncle here, but he had insisted he see his younger brother’s face for his last memory and his son Vinod sheepishly obliged. And, besides, father’s older sister (Buaji) is here as well…somewhere.
The ceremonial expert, Panditji, says that they are ready for the next step, so Nishant goes to get Amma and the other women. Savitri goes into the courtyard and watches as her sons carry her husband’s body out. She recalls when she and Ramprasad first moved into this house, when they were so young that he looked just like Nishant. They were so happy and hopeful then.
The men walk through the streets of Lucknow to the crematorium. The brothers arrange the body while Prakaj and Basant purchase wood for the pyre. Prakaj complains about price of pyre wood here being twice what it is in his hometown, but Mamaji and the brothers tell him to get on with it. With that settled, Gajraj has his head shaved and sets fire to the pyre.
It is evening when everyone returns to the house. The ritual is far from over, however, so they have to stick around for several days. And Nishant’s wife still has not arrived, and elder sister Rani expresses concern to younger sister Dhaani. Dhaani notes that Seema never comes to family occasions. But this is not simply an occasion, but a funeral. So, Dhaani says that they should just ask Neetu.
Rani goes to see her mother, who is, once again recounting what happened when Ramprasad died, this time to the kids and some other blood relatives, though she kind of leaves out the argument.
Meanwhile, the three present sisters-in-laws, Pratibha, Sulekha, and Sushma, are moving the bags off the floor of a room to put down a mattress. Their conversation turns to Ramprasad’s generosity regarding giving gifts and his knowledge of what the giftees liked. Pratibha, somewhat jokingly, theorizes that he must have been a romantic when he was young. How would have fathered six children otherwise?
Speaking of the children, they are surrounding Amma in the bedroom. Nishant goes to the piano and starts tinkering around with it. He wakes up some of his siblings. Oops. He apologizes and tells Amma to go to sleep. Savitri says that she is not sleepy, and will sleep there if she does get sleepy. Really, it was Gajraj who had fallen asleep. Nishant offers to give her a foot massage and she accepts. She says that their father missed all of them. Nishant tells her that he had wanted to visit, but was busy. Manoj backs him up.
Back to the sisters-in-law, now taking the clothes out of the luggage and folding them. Apparently, Ramprasad did not like Pratibha’s cooking when he visited her and Pankaj, but liked Sulekha’s when he visited her and Manoj, perhaps because she was from an affluent family. Sushma says that he rarely visited her and Gajraj. Pratibha jokes that it was because Sushma got sick of Savitri’s nagging, which Sushma denies. She claims that she would have come here if not for son Rahul and his exams. Pratibha asks whether Gajraj still drinks himself to sleep. Sushma says that he stopped long ago, but that doesn’t stop Pratibha and Sulekha from whispering excitedly about it. Sulekha then asks Sushma whether the youngest sister-in-law will be coming…as if she would know any more than anyone else. She wonders whether their late father-in-law was not up to Seema’s standards. Pratibha laughs. Sushma scolds both of them for being nasty, but laughs along. She suggests that they go to see their mother-in-law before Dhaani or Rani reprimand them.
The sisters-in-law go to the gathering around Savitri as Gajraj asks if she wants a drink. Of tea, he has to elaborate. Rani says that they cannot make tea, Dhaani offers to go ask their neighbor Sheila to make tea. Why bother her at this hour? Savitri reminds them that they are not supposed to cook while in mourning…but she gives Gajraj the go ahead anyways. He is about to get up, but Sushma offers to make it instead, for Savitri and whoever else wants some. Sulekha and Pratibha start to get up as well, but Rani tells them that Sushma is going to make tea, not chit chat with them.
Savitri’s children start talking about the last time they each came to visit her and their father. Some came more often than others; more recently than others. Rani scolds them for not staying here for extended periods. Pankaj protests that they have jobs and their children have schooling, but Rani reminds him about the holidays. And little Neetu does not even have kids. Gajraj is about to push back against the elder sister when the power goes out and they have to all get candles.
The power is, apparently, still out in the morning. In any case, Sulekha makes tea and walks around the house serving cups. She is also cooking pooha for breakfast and tasked with waking up the kids. She mutters to herself about getting saddled with all the housework. Well, daughters-in-law can cook during the mourning session, but not daughters. So…that is one thing.
Sulekha passes by Gajraj and Nishant, who are observing the toilet room. How big is this house to have only one toilet? Gajraj says that Amma’s brother, Mamaji, has been in there for an hour. He asks Nishant how long he is staying. Nishant isn’t sure. What is the plan anyways? Is Gajraj staying until the 13th-day ritual or just the 4th-day ritual? Gajraj says that he does not know what the elders have decided, but he has told his colleagues that his stay might be extended. Nishant may not have the luxury of accommodating colleagues.
Gajraj then asks about Seema. Nishant says simply that Gajraj knows Seema. He says that he has told the family that she is unwell, and will come when she has recovered. Gajraj says that Amma will understand, but Rani makes a scene about everything. Nishant notes that she is doing so already.
Rani has run over to the toilet room door and yells at her uncle to come out. When he does emerge, the room stinks so much that Basant immediately comes out after going in. Prakash manages to rush in while Basant is outside and shuts the door behind him, so now it is up to Basant to pour water on Mamaji’s hands. Rani asks Mamaji if he is constipated, and he says that he ate something that didn’t suit his stomach, but he wanted his body to take care of it naturally.
Manoj arrives with a framed photograph of Ramprasad. The family sets it up in the bedroom. Manoj says that the Panditji will perform the ritual tomorrow, but they have to decide whether to hold a 13-day ritual or a 4-day ritual. Ramprasad’s elder sister, Buaji, states her refusal to shortcut the ritual. Satrivi agrees. At least Dhaani claims that she does, as Amma is silent. So, 13 days it is.
Gajraj and Manoj decide to take their father’s ashes to Benaras, which I gather is a city officially called Varanasi and is 150 miles southeast of Lucknow. He asks Tauji, who gives his blessing. Mamaji says that Gajraj cannot leave the house after having shaved his head for the ritual, but the brother of the deceased overrules the brother of the deceased’s wife. What is going to do stuck at home? Peeling peas with the women? Mamaji disapproves, but walks away. In the meantime, the outing of two becomes a ride for all four brothers in cousin Vinod’s car. Or is it Tauji’s car? Well, whatever. They are going.
Prakash has zeroed in on Tauji’s offhand joke about peas, and complains about his hypocrisy to Mamaji and Basant, since Tauji had previously said no to green vegetables. Mamaji tells him that that is less important than the car issue, when the older grandsons, Rahul and Samay join them. Mamaji chides them for waking up late, and Samay explains that they slept late…which is not the best excuse, especially since Mamaji claims to have not slept at all due to Prakash snoring.
Two men greet Savistri and ask what happened. She is about to tell the story when Pratibha interrupts to ask about certain things that they need, like extra quilts and mattresses as well as someone to do the dishes. Savistri says that their neighbor Sheila has the number for a tent vendor and a worker named Munni for the dishes. So, Pratibha tells Rahul and Samay to go to Sheila.
Rahul and Samay go over to Sheila, who says that they have grown so much since she had last seen them. She calls for her daughter, Bittu, who seems also happy to see them. Sheila tells her to make some tea for the boys, but Samay and Rahul explain that they need the tent vendor’s number…well, they make an attempt to explain. Anyways, Sheila says that Bittu will go with them and an amused Bittu agrees. Samay says that that is not necessary, but Rahul not so subtly kicks him and accepts.
Bittu takes Rahul and Samay on her scooter to Munni and tells her to go to Ramprasad’s house the next day, though she does not say why. Then, Bittu takes the boys to the tent house and tells the man there to come to Ramprasad’s house the next day…again, without a stated reason. And then it is back home…oh wait. Rahul suggests they go riding around Lucknow. Samay worries about getting thrashed, but Rahul doesn’t care and Bittu is game. So…they spend however long riding around and hanging out.
The brothers are preparing to leave when Rahul and Samay return. Gajraj threatens to give Rahul a thrashing for coming back so late, as does Manoj to Samay. The boys go inside and Sushma also scolds Rahul, but Rahul doesn’t really care.
The brothers leave for Beneras and…is Gajraj driving drunk? In any case, the car breaks down at one point, so they have to push it. Vinod had warned them of that, but whatever. They call home to say that they will not be back before the afternoon the next day. Still, they manage to find a place to stay for the night and drunkenly (and loudly, according to the other guests) reminisce about when they were kids. Gajraj tells them that their father gave them nothing and their mother often pit their father against him. Pankaj starts to open up about how his ventures have all failed miserably. Manoj says that he has been able to keep his show afloat due to his (affluent) in-laws, but Ramprasad and Savitri? They complain about their children never visiting them, but have they set foot outside their home?
What about Nishant? The youngest? Pankaj claims that Neetu is everyone’s favorite and that he always does whatever he wants. And his wife listens to him. And he was such a great singer. His older brothers pressure him to sing a song. He doesn’t want to, but he eventually does. And the rest of them do as well. Okay, this masala-esque part kind of sticks out like a sore thumb in this movie, but whatever. It is almost as if they are all kids again…back when Ramprasad looked like Nishant.
The next day, Gajraj’s brothers accompany him as he pours their father’s ashes into the river.
Meanwhile, friends and associates come to the house to pay respects. One goes up to a Savitri and asks what happened. Having predicted this, Rahul laughs, as do Samay and Samay’s sister Paakhi. They have to run up to the grandchildren’s quarters before they get scolded.
Samay says that Rahul is going to get them killed. Paakhi, still laughing, calls them both shameless. But it has become a thing now: people keep asking grandmother what happened and she give the same story over and over again. Samay suggests that they print a leaflet, which gets everyone laughing. One of the little kids asks if they can watch TV. Nope. Not in the house of mourning. Rahual says that they caaaan go to Bittu’s house, but perhaps one of the older cousins should accompany them. Paakhi sees what he is doing, but…oh…weren’t he and Samay supposed to be going to the airport to pick up Aunt Seema? Ooops. They go running downstairs and out of the house.
Savitri notices Nishant standing around sheepishly and tells Rani to tell him not to worry if his in-laws don’t come. Everyone else is here and that is fine. Buaji asks why they are not coming. Rani says that they are big shots. Bigger than Buaji? Well, in status, yes. Savitri tries to get her sister-in-law to drop the subject.
After some…erm…back and forth, Manoj reads out the draft of the letter that they will send regarding the final day of morning on January…the 1st? Oh dear. Gajraj worries that no one will come. Pankaj suggests they change the date to the 2nd. Or the 31st. Of course, Mamaji refuses, but Tauji tries to come up with a practical solution. Buaji steps in and starts needling her brother, which results in the two elderly siblings trading barbs regarding their childhood mishaps. Even Mamaji is amused at this exchange.
The issue of the date is still unresolved and the argument descends into ridiculousness and Mamaji gets increasingly upset at the thought of Ramprasad’s sons displaying such disregard for tradition. Everyone seems to be shouting except for a resigned Savitri. This cannot get much worse, can it?
Oh, hey. The boys are back from the airport…with Seema. She has finally arrived.
Well, everything is going to be great now, eh?
This is the directorial debut of actor Seema Pahwa, and she also wrote it. I cannot say how much of this is based on real life, and most of the non-review articles that I have seen regarding her and the movie center around the similarities with a movie called Pagglait that was released a couple months later. Still, there are a few connections. First, the family name is Bagharva, which is her maiden name. Of course, there is the character named Seema, though that Seema is kind of on the outs with the larger Bagharva family. Seema Pahwa’s husband, Manoj Pahwa, portrays not Manoj, but Gajraj. The character of Savitri is played by Supriya Pathak, the mother of Pahwa’s daughter-in-law. And Pathak’s husband (not in the movie) is named Pankaj Kapur and her brother-in-law is Naseeruddin Shah, who plays Ramprasad. There are probably other connections, but I can probably stop here.
This movie has a humungous cast of characters and I definitely had trouble keeping track of them the first time around. The second time, I had to take notes and check with the Wikipedia page and IMDB. I do feel like there was a deliberateness to overwhelming the viewer with so many people. The movie even kind of acknowledges it early one with two unnamed funeral workers struggling to keep track with who is who and what anyone’s relationship is to the deceased. There is a sense of confusion and barely controlled chaos. Because of there being so many people, there are constant clashes of personalities, responsibilities, and ideas regarding behavior during the ceremonies.
Due to the huge cast, not all of them get much development. That is fine for those who are supposed to be comic relief, and the viewer can get a bit of a read on most of them. At the same time, the subplot with Rahul did not quite work for me. I kind of see what the movie was doing overall, but…I don’t know.
The overall feel of the movie is sad, of course. However, the movie shows that life goes on even through the death of a loved one. There is some plenty of catching up between scattered family members and intra-family politicking. So, while this is not a comedy, there is plenty of joking between equals within the family, as well as humor to be mined from the squabbling and the passive aggressive comments.
The different groups of the family seem to congregate together. The grandchildren tend to stick together, although the older boys sometimes go off and do their own thing. The sons tend to stick together. The daughters-in-law tend to stick together with one exception. The sons-in-law tend to stick together, sometimes with Mamaji. The daughters are usually either with their mother or with the sisters-in-law. These groups may act as united fronts at times, but there are always internal dynamics at play. After all, they are not really here by choice or due to a happy occasion. They have been scattered for a reason.
Now that the various branches of the family are forced to interact with each other for two weeks, the reasons for them staying apart come into play. Some cannot help but succumb to letting out their grievances while others see this ordeal as an opportunity that they normally do not get. Those related only by marriage may have fond memories of Ramprasad, but they are here mostly out of duty, and they sometimes try to negotiate and one-up each other in terms of who does what. Sibling bonds can be overruled by sibling rivalry as well as resentment over unfair treatment during childhood or unequal destinies as adults. This becomes worse when the issue of money arises. Even the son who is faring well financially complains about emasculating comments about being owned by his wealthy in-laws. Everyone is a victim of someone else and everyone is owed something. Of course, they are not bad people, just humans. And perhaps getting cooped up all together just lets the toxic thoughts fester.
A lot of the non-personal disputes center around the funeral rites. Now, some are more familiar with funeral rites than others, but all they have to do is follow the Panditji, right? Well, it is not that easy. Firstly, the rituals will bump up with a certain foreign holiday that takes part on the first of January. That has got to stick in the craw of the traditionalists, but those who are trying to view this practically argue that no one will come. Secondly, as some of these characters have trouble getting along, staying in the house for two weeks is too much, and a few (of the men) find a level of freedom by just escaping, even when they are not supposed to leave. Thirdly, what is the purpose of all this? Savitri’s brother Mamaji and her older daughter Rani seem to be the biggest sticklers for sticking with tradition. But they seem to be more concerned with tradition for the sake of tradition, to avoid the humiliation of being seen to cut corners. Meanwhile, Ramprasad’s older brother Tauji seems to have no concern regarding the propriety of the funeral. That does not mean that he does not love his brother or that he is not deeply upset with his death. But what matters to him is the heart, not looking pious in front of the community. With his dismissive behavior and frequent lapses into English, Tauji certainly does not care about how he comes across to others.
In the middle of all this is Amma Savitri. She may be surrounded by her children, her grandchildren, or family friends. But she seems to be constantly alone. For the majority of the film, she silently sits in one place in the bedroom unless someone asks her what happened that night, in which case she repeats that rehearsed narrative like on autopilot. Savitri is in deep mourning. And…other than some crying, it may seem to her that others are not. The grandkids are joking around. The daughters-in law joke around. The sons bumble about. The sons in-law just complain about whatever. They all have their own agendas and axes to grind. And none of them can just keep it together before the ceremony is over. Not even for a grieving widow. Oh, they can try, but she can tell that it is an act.
No one is there for Amma and no one just allows her to be in her grief. Granted, her grief also seems to be for an idealized version of her husband, the young and hopeful one. Not the one who beat her children or the one whom she had been bickering with and complaining about up to the moment of his death. One character, I won’t say whom, points this out to other characters during a rant of resentment. But…is that not what marriage is?
And outside of that circle? Seema. Again, I am not sure if she is supposed to be a stand-in for the director, but it is interesting to guess where sympathies lie. Seema is a failed actor who has supposedly relied on her famous brother for prestige. Pretty much everyone else in the Bagharva family considers her to be selfish and arrogant. Her soft-spoken husband does not really stand up for her either. She does not want to be here, and came only because of obligation. No one else wants her here except that her absence is a sign of disrespect. Yet, with her here, everything she does is seen as disrespectful. However, her argument is that she is the only one being honest about her problems with Nishant’s parents, while everyone else is talking behind Savitri’s back and lying to her face. Of course, Seema almost always assumes that people are talking trash about her even when they are not…sometimes they are talking trash about each other or someone else entirely, but they are often trashing her as well. And why should she be considered the disrespectful one when the other sisters-in-law are constantly cracking jokes? There is a brief reveal late in the movie for why everyone seems to band together to hate her. I am not sure whether the movie is treating that pseudo-ostracism as justified or not, but I would say that Seema is not really portrayed as sympathetically there as she could have been.
One last thing that I would like to talk about is the house itself. It seems like a real house, for sure. A pretty nice big one, certainly good for raising six children. And there is a long take of around 70 seconds that goes through quite a bit of the house just to establish the geography of the place. However, it is pretty telling that movie first shows it dark and empty, almost like a horror flick. And the only people there are Ramprasad, Savitri, and a neighborhood boy. No other relatives in sight. As the funeral ceremonies get underway, the house becomes crowded with family members, employees, and people coming to pay respects. The once near-empty house becomes claustrophobically cramped, with very few places to retreat to. Yet, there are times, particularly at night, where it can seem empty, with everyone asleep or having briefly enjoyed sweet freedom of the outside.
At once simple and complicated, this movie is about people struggling to deal with loss, struggling to avoid dealing with loss, and struggling to deal with each other. Mostly sad, but also funny, this is really good.
WTF ASIA 213: Passer By (Mongolia: 2017, approx. 115 minutes)
Available in Australia, Canada, the United States, and perhaps a few other countries. I cannot guarantee that these are not the James Nesbit movie. Also, it is on AsianCrush and Tubi, though the Tubi version is slightly slower, making it just under 2 hours.
WTF ASIA 214: The Third Murder (Japan: 2017, approx. 125 minutes)