Balki’s Delorean

I spent a good bit of time trying to figure out how to write a coherent review Paa before I realized something. The entire publicity machine for Paa focuses on the fact that Amitabh Bachchan plays a twelve year-old with Progeria (a genetic disorder that makes him look like he’s pushing seventy) and Abhishek Bachchan plays his dad. Now, the easiest way to look at this is as a gimmick — considering how the only function Progeria really plays in the story is reducing the protagonist’s life expectancy, one could just as well have cast a young kid with Leukaemia or something and ended up with much the same movie.

Now, casting gimmicks aren’t bad per se. As long as they work well and don’t distract from the overall experience, there’s really no reason to complain.

Take Perazhagan, for instance. The hunchback Chinna would rank among the best Surya performances of all time. If I didn’t already know that it was Surya in that role, I might not have guessed it. Would the film have worked if someone else had actually played that role? Probably just as well. But his knockout performance doesn’t hurt at all.

Contrast this with Dasavatharam: Kamal’s performances as the priest, the chemist, the cop and the old woman were beyond awesome. The other six, I could’ve readily done without. If anything, they diminish the experience.

What I am trying to get at through this extended rant is that I could essentially write this review in two parts: one about Amitabh’s performance, and the other about Paa minus Amitabh. Makes my job simpler, doesn’t it? Therefore, without much more ado:

Amitabh’s performance

Paa begins with a prize distribution ceremony for an art contest in a school, presided over by a young, popular politician named Amol Ppte. The winner is a twelve year-old named Auro who suffers from Progeria. When he is announced as the winner, he is just about to enter the auditorium. His classmates notice him and start cheering. It makes him want to open the door and go back the way he came. And as he does that, you hear the opening notes of the theme tune. Just a few notes, as if to suggest that the music inside his head isn’t the cheering outside it. As everybody cheers him on, he gains confidence and lopes towards the podium and the theme music starts up again. He goes up, does a little monkey dance along with his classmates in the audience, receives his trophy and walks off.

Here’s the thing: Until that scene ended, I hadn’t even noticed that the boy was played by Amitabh Bachchan.

This isn’t just make-up, although the movie does well enough in that department. This is an actor becoming invisible.

And yet, there are moments where he sheds his adolescent skin ever so briefly and lets the seasoned performer with the amazing screen prescence take over. Consider the moment in the hospital where Amol Apte (Abhishek) finally realizes that Auro (Amitabh) is his son. Auro beckons him close, whispers: Tumhaare pichle se pichle se pichla mistake and points to himself. Not a twelve year-old gesture, but done so brilliantly that I’m disinclined to object.

Paa minus AB Sr.

Had Amitabh’s performance been stranded in the midst of a sub-par film, it would have been a huge disappointment. Thankfully, that isn’t the case.

The story itself isn’t new: a single woman raises a child she bore out of wedlock, and the child runs into the other parent in due course with neither of them being aware of their relationship. Shortening the life expectancy of the child simply puts a time frame to the proceedings.

The story isn’t helped by the fact that one the the subplots doesn’t work. The whole business about the do-gooder politico dealing with a corrupt environment doesn’t work too well and is at odds with the rest of the proceedings. I understand Balki’s intention — he wishes to flesh out Amol’s character and not just focus on his relevance to Auro’s life — but the writing leaves much to be desired. When the film turns its focus back to two parents, two grandparents and a child, it works much better. Much of the credit for that must go to the performances.

I’ll be honest with you: when I saw that Abhishek had a clean-shaven look in this movie, my hopes went down. I mean, the last time he shaved this carefully, he came up with Dhaai Akshar Prem Ke. But he acquits himself beautifully here.

Although the title refers to him, the movie is more about Auro and his mother. Vidya Balan gets one of the meatiest roles of her career and gives it a performance to match.

The grandparents deserve mention. Both characters are fiercely protective of their offspring, although the manner in which they demonstrate it differs. Paresh Rawal (playing Amol’s father) is his usual dependable self. But Arundhati Nag is the real standout here. Her conversation with her daughter when she finds out that the latter is pregnant is fantastic.

Much as I loved all these aspects, what I found most interesting was what the movie reminded me of.

Ilayaraja’s work on the background score, for instance, is the sort of stuff we grew up with in the eighties and early nineties. The sort of stuff that preserved our sanity in movies where Mohan died of cancer in the end. The sort of stuff that took a good Mani Rathnam or K Balachander or Kamalhassan movie and made it better.

In some ways, that is the key to my experience of Paa. There are scenes that feel like they came out of a Mani/KB-Kamal collaboration that got scripted and never got made. When I imagine them watching this movie, I see a lot of nods and smiles.

KB, for instance, might smile at the portrayal of strong, single women or way the music and visuals do a lot of the heavy lifting. There is a conversation between Amol and his father where it seems like each of them is lit up in a separate box. Beautifully done from an aesthetic standpoint, of course (PC Sreeram in top form here). But more importantly, notice the way it emphasizes their viewpoints in that conversation. KB would’ve been proud.

The way Amitabh handles the aforementioned “mistake” scene at the hospital is vintage Kamal. (The Moondram Piraiesque monkey dance doesn’t count except in a very superficial sense.)

Mani would probably find the economy of dialogue and the portrayal of strong, sassy women familiar. He would certainly chuckle at the Nayakan-inspired scene where Amol gives a bunch of reporters a taste of their own medicine by getting slum dwellers to take over their homes.

Much as I may have given you the impression that this is an eighties drama with cellphones and webcams, I do not mean any of these comparisons as a put-down. These people were the reason why I fell in love with the movies in the first place. If anything, Balki gave me a reason to fall in love with them all over again.

Poscscripts:

  1. Why do so many of Vidya Balan’s roles involve her dealing with men of the love-em-and-leave-em variety?
  2. The opening credits are spoken by Jaya Bachchan, a neat touch. Exactly how much temptation did Balki have to resist in not casting Ash in the Vidya Balan role?
  3. I looked up Baradwaj Rangan’s essay on Paa and found his entire review to be based on the thesis that Balki adores the Mani Rathnam of the eighties. It almost made me not post this one —  I mean, why bother when someone else says the same thing but does it better than you do?
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4 thoughts on “Balki’s Delorean

  1. I have to admit that I was planning on taking a pass on this film, but you may have changed my mind. I’ve heard that Amitabh and Vidya were steller, but there was something that was keeping me away. I might have to reconsider now. I really enjoy Vidya and this sounds like it might be her career best. Great review!

  2. uniquebluerose says:

    I came here after BR’s sir review….I am sometimes read review just for the sake of it!!!

    And i am glad i came here…Arundathi Nag Scene with her daughter was superb!!! I just loved and some times watch the movie just waiting for this scene to come and smile and nod …..(I am mad this way sometimes)

    I also loved the “Round and Round” explanation of why Auro’s mother didnt’ “Round and Round”….

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