Melodramas about terminally ill protagonists must inevitably hark back to Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Nagesh Kukunoor?s long-in-the-cans Aashayein does just that. The film has a scene in which the hero watches Anand in the company of a cancer patient in a hospice.
But there is one palpable difference. In the 1971 Rajesh Khanna starrer, the protagonist teaches the world around him a thing or two about life and its many wonders before his premature death.
In Aashayein, it is the ailing hero who is at the receiving end of life?s myriad lessons imparted to him by an assortment of similarly ill-fated men and women that he encounters in his final weeks.
Comparisons may be odious but let?s get this out of the way: Aashayein is no Anand. However, in an era in which the once busy middle-of-the-road space has all but disappeared, the chemical engineer-turned-filmmaker?s 10th feature is a meaningful addition to a worthy tradition.
Aashayein will not live as long as Anand has, but it does have several moments worth savouring ? and preserving for posterity.
At the heart of the story is a dishy male protagonist ? he is a compulsive gambler and chain smoker ? who receives his comeuppance in dreadful circumstances. He learns that he has a cancerous lung that is precariously close to giving up on him.
While the emotional resonance of this tragic situation is easy to comprehend and respond to, the film does not ever jump out at you in a desperate attempt to tug at your heartstrings. It flows along in a nice easy arc ? only, at times, too languidly for its own good.
But if you love your cinema to be subdued and genteel even when it deals with pressing questions of life and death, Aashayein might appeal to you. If you don?t, you will probably find Kukunoor?s low-key narrative style a tad on the inert side.
But that is one of the most interesting aspects of Kukunoor?s films. He never plays by the rules set by the industry?s so-called pace-setters. He manages to find his way through and around the Bollywood maze without diluting his own vision.
Kukunoor has tripped every time he has had a shot at mainstream tropes ? as he did in Bombay to Bangkok (light-hearted love story) and 8X10 Tasveer (psychological thriller driven by a superstar non-actor). Aashayein is far more up his street.
With nearly half of the films that he has made to date ? Hyderabad Blues (his 1998 debut), Rockford, Iqbal and Dor ? garnering positive critical notices, he has proved repeatedly that you can survive in Bollywood on your own terms and at your own pace. The beautifully shot Aashayein is yet another statement to that effect from Kukunoor.
You barely settle into your seat when the film springs its defining moment upon you ? all the smoke in the lungs of Rahul Sharma (John Abraham) acts up. The doctor tells the carefree man the truth. Rahul opts for levity to begin with, but the doctor is deadly serious.
As his world threatens to collapse around him, Rahul has to contend with his live-in girlfriend (Sonal Sehgal). She insists that she would like to be by his side until the very end. But Rahul decides to leave her but not before gifting the girl a substantial part of a gambling windfall that has landed on his lap even as life plays its cruellest joke on him.
The funereal mood is contrasted with the brightly lit hospice where he arrives to spend the last few months of his life.
Rahul is armed with some clothes, a stash of cash and his Raiders of the Lost Ark poster. He still has a few dreams left and one of them is to be Indiana Jones.
But he discovers more than just dreams in the hospice: a real world where death is at the door and life really matters.
Rahul is exposed to an array of inmates: a spunky teenaged cancer patient (Anaitha Nair) who develops a crush on the male protagonist; an ageing man (Girish Karnad), who can no longer speak; a former well-heeled prostitute (Farida Jalal) who is HIV positive; and a little boy (played by Ashwin Chitale, last seen in the National Award-winning Marathi film Shwaas) blessed with wisdom beyond his tender years.
Now to the big question: is John Abraham up to it? Well, he does not quite let the audience forget who he is. Tut, tut. But on the final stretch, the actor makes a fair fist of the dying young act.