“What will people say?” he wonders. And so, every night, he enters her house from the backdoor. They won’t understand, he feels. Not because this arrangement is a little unorthodox – they merely sleep next to each other to overcome loneliness – but because boys like him and girls like her aren’t supposed to be doing these things. Or at least that’s what the town will think they are: a boy and a girl.
Louis (Robert Redford) is in his seventies, as is Addie (Jane Fonda).
In Ritesh Batra’s Our Souls At Night , the reticent widower and the sprightly widow dare to afford themselves a second chance. “Screw people,” Addie declares finally, too old to bother about the world and its opinions. When they make their first public appearance together at a busy restaurant, they lock arms defiantly. Perhaps they realise here that nothing is really stopping them. They are retired, financially independent and, most importantly, they live alone. As per American custom, the kids have long left the nest.
Truth in cinema
Their cultural situation is different from Usha Parmar’s (Ratna Pathak-Shah), in Alankrita Srivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha . Usha, a widower, is her conservative Bhopal locality’s frumpy matriarch. She is addressed as “Buaji” – which, in Indian culture, apart from being a more colloquial (and ironically, more respectful) term for “aunty,” also amounts to perhaps the most de-sexualised identity possible. One can barely associate romance – forget the physical manifestations of it – with the Buajis , Baujis , Mausijis and Dadajis of this country.
Usha owns property. She resists the area’s notorious land sharks. Yet, she is worried about what “people might think” if they discover her obsession with erotic fiction. These people are primarily constituted of her younger joint-family members, all of whom live under her roof. Eventually, when she is publicly exposed for “tricking” a younger man into passionate bouts of phone sex, it’s this family that belittles her into feeling like a criminal. It’s not only because she is a woman – as per the film’s central theme – but also because she is the epitome of societal seniority. Her antiquated status conditions her to believe that she is “abnormal” for wanting something that only youngsters are allowed to want. Oldness is apparently a disease that disables the concept of sensuality.
This isn’t specific to just one lifestyle. It is universally assumed that age is the badge of experience, and experience is the badge of sobriety. Love, though, is anything but sober. It’s often the pressure to adhere to such pre-conceived norms – the pressure that invariably comes from within four walls – that numbs those like Usha into a shroud of shame and secrecy.
Louis and Addie, too, are jolted out of their septuagenarian reverie only when her wayward son visits with his kid in tow. If the son had been living with her all along, her courtship then might have assumed the illicit confidentiality of an affair rather than the heady sovereignty of second-companionship. The resentful son makes her feel like a desensitised mother and grandmother – a “ buaji ” – again, simply by making her feel responsible again. It’s family, and not a town full of judgmental gazes, that ties her back down to acceptable isolation.
In both cases, their advanced life stage is purported to be an indicator of “completeness” – they aren’t meant to rediscover the meaning of intimacy, especially if surrounded by familiar faces. Their future is irrelevant if their past still exists. And in both cases, they interpret their own phases of desire as stray bouts of insanity – as if they were caught cheating on the default idea of adulthood. These shackles begin from the very home they created. Not once does it occur to them that perhaps getting carried away – at an age when they are expected to literally be carried away – is not unordinary but extraordinary.
On home ground
Which is why the social core of Ravi Chopra’s Baghban remains pertinent. Forget strangers falling in love, here’s a couple married for decades – and yet their grown-up sons cannot fathom the notion of their undying chemistry. They resort to pitifully sneaking about simply to see one another, even within the same family. Their intrinsic selflessness is weaponised against their own being.
Maybe this is why we chuckle, even today, when we see two old-timers unabashedly exhibit mutual affection. It’s sweet because they aren’t supposed to be that way. It’s also disconcertingly funny: an antithetical equivalent of watching two infants behave beyond their years. This could be down to the steady cinematic cute-ifying of age – single-parent or grandparent dynamics often serve as the comic-relief element in mainstream movies. Consider some famous Bollywood’s titles: single dad Anupam Kher’s coy jhalaks with Himani Shivpuri’s buaji character in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayege , the hero’s uncle Dara Singh’s submissive fondness for heroine’s dominant dadi Sushma Seth in Kal Ho Naa Ho , and even Kher’s clownish sardar blubbering around jaat spinster Archana Puran Singh in Mohabbatein . They are designed as sideshow-humour because we find their inherent maturity too difficult to acknowledge.
Circle of life
The first thought that occurs to me when I do see old folks taking a second chance is depressingly revelatory: have they been shunned by their families? Are they freed of their past? For example, tenderness dares to bloom between one of many octogenarians and his elderly childhood sweetheart in Lage Raho Munnabhai because he lives in a retirement home – long abandoned by his own. Ditto for the rejected British retirees in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel , who reinvent their hearts and minds because they have nobody left to disappoint or impress. Or even Daya (Lalit Behl) from Mukti Bhavan , who doesn’t shy away from courting a kindly widow (Navnindra Behl) despite his son’s presence, because they occupy a space that enables spiritual renouncement.
In this context, cinema has embraced a natural role-reversal of sorts. The same parents who were stubborn, old-school villains in youth-oriented romantic dramas are now – much after those end credits have rolled – the coming of old age protagonists of stories in which their kids have evolved into those villains. Either they get exiled and break free, or they seek the blessings of adult sons and daughters before making any self-serving decisions – in the process subverting and gentrifying a popular film genre.
“What will they say?” a teenaged boy would once fret, before surreptitiously climbing into his nervous girlfriend’s balcony at the dead of night. Such is the circularity of life. The narratives have reversed, and yet they remain the same. Because “they” now worry about what we will say.