Twenty minutes into Aashayein, you find yourself in a depressing place where the terminally ill come to die. And the gloom of death is visible on every face around and Kukunoor takes his own time to let the protagonist get used to it with repeated shots of him smoking, feeling his rib cage, coughing and throwing up blood.
And you can't help but think that Kukunoor maybe getting a tad too manipulative this time around. The setting is almost like a horror film… a bunch of characters all destined to die around one roof are probably going to get bumped off one by one just as we have invested in them.
But thankfully, Kukunoor chooses to focus on the bond between the 17-year-old drama queen Padma (Anaitha Nair) and the chain smoker coming to terms with his death Rahul (John Abraham) and we see sunshine and smiles again.
Just like he infused the Behroopiya (Shreyas Talpade) into Dor for comic relief in the middle of a heavy-duty drama, here he writes in the spirited Padma to change the mood and lighten things around. And it works.
Again, it's Kukunoor's disregard for genre that keeps a fairly predictable plot throw up a few surprises. Like how he turned a documentary on prison life into a thriller halfway in Teen Deewarein, here he sneaks in a bit of the supernatural (Ashwin Chitale, the kid from Shwaas gets to play a character that could have very well been in a Manoj Night Shyamalan film) to find metaphors from pop culture. A nice touch but spelt out way too much in the film.
He remains a fanboy, continuing to pay long-drawn tributes to films that inspired him. There are occasional digs at the filmi and the larger than life, something he's been doing since Hyderabad Blues. And he knows to contrast the larger than life with what's real… something he did so well in Bollywood Calling.
Which is why it is a little disturbing when he gets into Sanjay Leela Bhansali's territory of manipulative melodrama… There's an almost Black moment (remember Rani Mukerji pleading with Amitabh Bachchan for a kiss) here when the 17-year-old asks him to make love to her. Though Anaitha is simply terrific and owns the scene and maybe even the film here (to the point of making you cry), you tend to wonder et tu Kukunoor?
Kukunoor was the man who stood for anti-cinema, the filmmaker who made sure his characters always kept it real and celebrated life. To see him do what we have come to expect from Bhansali or even Karan Johar maybe a little unsettling for a Kukunoor fan, but it must be said here that he can make you cry as well as they can. And boy, he can make even John Abraham act.
Thankfully, the best things about Kukunoor's brand of cinema are the little moments he creates out of life, the kinds you don't get to see in the mainstream… Be it a nun asking for vodka shot or the irreverence to make Darth Vader jokes out of a patient who has lost his voice.
Welcome back, Nagesh Kukunoor. Aashayein is a tad too overdone, a little undercooked (some of the subplots involving other patients are hurriedly resolved or left hanging) and manipulative at times but hey, it has its heart in the right place.
For a film about death, Aashayein has enough life and hope to keep it going.
Director: Nagesh Kukunoor
Cast: John Abraham, Anaitha Nair, Sonal Sehgal, Girish Karnad, Farida Jalal
Storyline: A chain-smoking gambler diagnosed with lung cancer checks himself in to a hospice and learns to live life to the fullest.
Bottomline: The Kukunoor we knew from Dor and Iqbal returns with another drama that tugs at the heartstrings.