Pushing Boundaries

Paa is all about Amitabh Bachchan but works because he subverts his status.

01 January, 2010

BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS,Paa will have been much discussed, reviewed, praised or reviled. And, unless you have been living under a rock, it will have been impossible to ignore the movie, as the Bachchan clan has gone all out to promote their comeback AB Corp production.

The barebones plot first. Political science student and politician’s son Amol Arte (Abhishek Bachchan) and medical student Vidya (Vidya Balan) meet at a British university (a mix of Oxford and Cambridge locations), fall in love, and have sex. Vidya becomes pregnant, but Amol does not want to have the child as it will hamper his political ambitions. Vidya promises that the child will not be a hiccup in Amol’s destined political career. She disappears from his life, returns home to Lucknow and her mother (Arundhati Nag) and decides to have the baby. While Amol is left thinking that she had an abortion, the baby, Auro, is born and diagnosed with progeria—a rare medical condition occurring once every eight million births, where children mature physically at about five times the normal rate. Most do not survive beyond age 13.

The film’s main narrative begins when Auro, now a 12-year-old trapped in an old man’s body, receives the first prize for a school science project from Amol, now an MP. Much to Vidya’s worry, Auro begins an email relationship with Amol and before he goes on a promised trip to the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi with his newfound MP friend, Vidya is forced to tell Auro the truth. Auro promises her he will never become a liability to his father’s career, and after they meet, Amol and Auro start to bond. In one dramatic scene, Auro suffers a periodic attack from his condition and he is hospitalised, Amol finds out that Auro is his son. He is willing to put his political career at stake, accept Auro and reunite with Vidya, but she will have none of it. As Auro’s condition worsens, the son attempts to persuade his parents to reconcile.

Paa is definitely all about Amitabh Bachchan, but works precisely because he subverts his own status. The actor has been continually trying to reinvent himself without much success in his recent disastrous outings; as a genie in Sujoy Ghosh’s execrable Aladin; a ghost in Vivek Sharma’s Bhootnath; God in Rumi Jaffrey’s God Tussi Great Ho; and Gabbar Singh in Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag. Though there were flashes of his well-documented talent in films like Varma’s Sarkar Raj or Rituparno Ghosh’s The Last Lear, in general his recent output hasn’t matched his old record.

The 67-year-old actor loses himself in the role of Auro so completely that the legendary Amitabh persona is forgotten within minutes. Most well known actors get trapped into playing themselves—or their audience-adored screen personas—ad nauseam, but here, for the first time since Amitabh became a superstar in the 70s, he isn’t playing himself. Helped by Hollywood prosthetics wizards, the Oscar-winning Christien Tinsley and Dominie Till (Saturn-nominated for King Kong), Amitabh is convincing as a young boy on the cusp of puberty trapped in the body of an 80-year-old. He is far from playing his reinvented bearded éminence grise, with his patented baritone punctuated by hissed emphases. With his nasal drawl, the superstar’s voice in Paa is almost unrecognisable. Thankfully, neither Amitabh nor writer/director R Balki have dealt with the character of Auro in a overtly sentimental way, though a song in the ‘Auro’ voice over the closing credits seems mawkish.

Looking beyond Amitabh’s central performance, Paa is riddled with flaws. As serious an illness as it is, Balki doesn’t dwell too long on progeria, using it merely as a peg on which to hang his rather flimsy plot. All medical information delivered to the audience is perfunctory, beginning with a dictionary definition of the condition following the opening credits. While taking up the rare disease as the film’s subject is commendable, due to sketchy descriptions of it the audience doesn’t fully understand Auro’s pain and physical suffering. It doesn’t help that Balki shows Auro as a pretty stoic and cheerful child, either. Balki is also working from a plot that is, to put it plainly, Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack (1996) meets Mani Ratnam’s Anjali (1990). In Jack, the legendary director’s worst effort, Robin Williams (playing the eponymous character) suffers from the same condition as Auro in Paa. That film, however, looked at Jack’s experiences as he enters the fifth grade and beyond as his older body experiences sexual urges that his young brain does not know how to process. Though replete with potty jokes, Paa stays clear of anything that could be remotely controversial for an Indian audience, and the kids in Auro’s school (La Martiniere) are remarkably understanding of his fragile health condition.

Before we turn to Anjali, it is necessary to take a step back and look at Balki’s debut film, Cheeni Kum (2007). The Mani Ratnam touch is apparent in that film considering that Balki’s characters seem to have walked straight off the South Indian master’s sets. Cute kids speak adult lines (not unlike Auro), one of Ilayaraja’s songs from Ratnam’s Mouna Ragam is the film’s title track (1986), and Ratnam’s regular cinematographer PC Sreeram racks up Mani homages.

The plot of Paa is similar to that of Anjali in that one parent is unaware their child exists in the first place, let alone the child is going to die. Small mercy that Balki avoids the maudlin finale of Anjali where the child’s on-screen death is exploited for teary melodrama. Vidya Balan—in perhaps her most dignified role since Parineeta—and old-time Kannada actress Arundhati Nag lend the required sensitivity to their roles. The cuteness of Abhishek playing father to his father wears off rather quickly, however, and while he is fine as the dynamic young MP, he flounders in the emotional sequences. Throughout, Amitabh outperforms him in spite of being buried under tons of prosthetic make-up.

Balki continues to be a cinematic magpie. He borrows the theme from the opening in Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and being an in-house production, Jaya Bachchan reads out Paa’s credits. Balki also has Ilayaraja reprocess the memorable Thumbi Vaa track from Balu Mahendra’s Malayalam film Olangal (1982) as Gumsum in Paa. The song has already been recycled by the composer as many as six times in various Indian languages, including Hindi in Aur Ek Prem Kahani (1996).

Sreeram’s cinematography in Paa is top-notch. Mainstream Bollywood audiences tend not to know that Sreeram practically reinvented Indian cinematography as we know it with his groundbreaking work in Tamil cinema for Mani Ratnam, creating the moodily lit interiors of Mouna Ragam, the crisp colour palettes of Alai Payuthey, and the burnished looks of Nayagan, Agni Natchatiram and Thiruda Thiruda.

The master cinematographer’s frames are badly let down by Anil Naidu’s abrupt editing, however, where continuous shots are chopped off for no reason, creating jarring jump-cuts in an otherwise visually beautiful film. Perhaps Naidu is not to blame, as he may have merely been trying to step up the pace in an otherwise languid outing. Paa is burdened with a puzzling subplot where Abhishek playing Amol Arte decides to single-handedly be the saviour of India’s slums. Added to which, to take on the electronic media that has been hounding him, he commandeers Doordarshan’s newsroom to stage his retort.

Given Balki’s background of television commercials, it is not surprising that in every home and interior, he has created impossibly perfect spaces where perhaps a sense of normalcy would have worked instead. Also, though the film is set in Lucknow, some more genuine location shooting in the crumbling edifices of the city instead of the few scant establishing shots could have provided a wonderful contrapuntal effect to the crumbling and fragile life that is the central theme of Paa.