By Pradeep Menon Nov. 12, 2022
Sooraj Barjatya returns to weave a simple, yet emotional narrative that hits all the right notes and is symbolic of the Director’s signature approach to cinema.
Historically, Hindi cinema has had far too few films with senior citizens as protagonists. In fact, the sub-genre probably got a bit of a bump when Amitabh Bachchan embraced his age, and because he never stopped being the kind of actor worth writing roles for. Now, with Bollywood’s unprecedented loss of form in terms of telling stories (not to mention the ostensible focus on targeting ‘youth’), the trailer of Sooraj R Barjatya’s Uunchai might have made it feel like a film out of time and place. In fact, the trailer holds nothing back. It tells you exactly what to expect in terms of plot, and you get exactly what you expected. And that is perhaps the film’s surprising, winning formula. This is a movie that strums some of the most primal social emotions we feel, with a firm commitment to the values ‘Brand Rajshri’ has come to be associated with.
The Kishore Kumar song fits the film like a glove. After all, it is an instantly hummable melody that talks about life in the simplest of opposing metaphors – ‘dhoop’ and ‘chhaanv’, ‘haar’ and ‘jeet’.
In Uunchai, the Laxmikant-Pyarelal number ‘Ye Jeevan Hai’ is often used as a thematic element – something to remind the three ‘aged’ men at the centre of the plot about their recently departed friend, Bhupen (Danny Denzongpa). Bhupen hails from Nepal, and he tries hard to goad his three BFFs into joining him on a trek to the base camp at Mt. Everest. He even secretly books tickets for the four of them to go in a couple of months. But he passes away. The three friends – Amit (Amitabh Bachchan), Javed (Boman Irani) and Om (Anupam Kher) – decide to honour him by scattering the ashes of his mortal remains off the Everest Base Camp, which itself is a gruelling trek to nearly 18000 feet above sea level. The Kishore Kumar song fits the film like a glove. After all, it is an instantly hummable melody that talks about life in the simplest of opposing metaphors – ‘dhoop’ and ‘chhaanv’, ‘haar’ and ‘jeet’. These aren’t binaries, but the kind of extremes that bookend the moods of life. We tend to spend most of our lives between such extremes. It is this kind of heartfelt simplicity that makes Uunchai feel like a revival of sorts for the Bollywood family drama.
Ironically enough, this might just be Sooraj Barjatya’s youngest-looking film since his debut Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), because this is probably the closest to a recognisable reality he has ever depicted on screen. No palaces and princes here, no one uses ‘jal’ in conversations. Uunchai makes the faux-youthfulness of Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon and Vivaah seem like they happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Also gone are the clunky families of his 90s films. Earlier, if he wanted a beautiful fictional town in his story, he named it ‘Sundar Nagar’ (and shot it abroad). Today, when he wants to present a seemingly insurmountable challenge to his senior citizen protagonists, he gives them Everest. They travel by road from Delhi, with pitstops at Kanpur, Lucknow and Gorakhpur along the way, for various reasons. Uunchai thus feels like his most rooted film yet. Still, neither has Barjatya strayed from the transparent, uncomplicated emotions he holds dear, nor has he departed from the easy accessibility that is a hallmark of his craft.
Despite the emotional undercurrent simmering throughout, there’s a light-heartedness to the screenplay that feels like a breath of fresh, cold mountain air.
The X-factor here, for me, was the sheer restraint on display. Of Barjatya’s seven films to date, Uunchai is the one that seems least like a theatrical soap opera. The stakes involved for these older, mature characters are established early. The older you are, the more unpredictable life will be. And some friendships last beyond a lifetime. That being clear, the trio (with some co-passengers in tow, whom I’ll get to) set off on their road trip soon enough. In the UP leg of their journey, you learn that sometimes big joint families are just not able to sustain anymore. And sometimes, children tend to prioritise their own lives over their parents’. But the film isn’t in the Baghban mould. Despite the emotional undercurrent simmering throughout, there’s a light-heartedness to the screenplay that feels like a breath of fresh, cold mountain air. The focus remains on working towards the emotional high of the climax, once the menfolk achieve the objective they’ve set out for. (It is only right at the end, after the singular event driving the film is completed, that Barjatya succumbs and gives us a large, unwieldy ‘family’ song-sequence.)
The male central characters here seem familiar, without being too stereotypical or coming across as caricatures. Bachchan’s Amit is a youthful old man, willing to learn and adapt, the one pushing the reluctant others towards following through on Bhupen’s plan. Kher’s Om is the irritable one, the traditionalist ready to snap at a youngster who thinks even slightly different from him. Irani’s Javed straddles the line between the two – noncommittal in every situation, until he is forced to commit. Each of them is nearly faultless, etching these characters out as real, separate people. All three do get the odd moment to ham it up as well, but these are actors who know how to overplay to good effect; they know where that fine line lies.
Even though they aren’t paired opposite each other here, Uunchai will make you yearn for the definitive Amitabh-Neena film, something that truly synthesizes movie-magic out of their respective skills and auras on screen.
There are also three vastly different female characters in this story. Javed’s wife Shabina (Neena Gupta), a mysterious fellow passenger named Maya (Sarika), and the young woman managing the trek, Shraddha (Parineeti Chopra). Thankfully, Gupta gets a lot more screen time than she did in the recent Goodbye, which also starred Amitabh Bachchan. Even though they aren’t paired opposite each other here, Uunchai will make you yearn for the definitive Amitabh-Neena film, something that truly synthesizes movie-magic out of their respective skills and auras on screen. Sarika’s Mala and Parineeti Chopra’s Shraddha feel like the most under-written of the lot, but they still manage to leave their impact.
Uunchai throws up no major surprises during its hefty runtime (over 150 minutes). The points it makes are simple, its lasting takeaways will warm your heart, and it plays out much like how one would want their beloved elders to attempt something like a long, difficult mountain trek. Slowly, gently, with unshakeable confidence in the present moment. After a long time, it felt like a Bollywood movie reclaimed the oft-missing integrity, and the penchant for pressing the right buttons while telling a simple story.