The sunshine girls: inside Tanuja Chandra’s documentary 'Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha'

Tanuja Chandra’s new documentary, which premièred in Madrid, sees her 86- and 93-year-old aunts in the best phase of their lives

There is something endlessly fascinating about personal films in which the maker becomes a participant or a role player. The most intensely realised recent example would be Sarah Polley’s family memoir-like film, Stories We Tell, in which she goes about unravelling secrets about her family and her own identity. Closer home, there has been Pushpa Rawat’s Nirnay, that probed into why her romance with a childhood friend couldn’t culminate in marriage. Ajay Noronha’s A Picture of You was an attempt to piece together a picture of his father, whom he lost in childhood, and barely had any recollection of.

Now, add well-known Hindi filmmaker Tanuja Chandra’s first documentary, Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha, to this list. The film, which had its world première recently at the Madrid International Film Festival, is about her two aunts, aged 86 and 93, spending the sunset years of their lives together in Lahra village, near Hathras in Uttar Pradesh.

Memories in Lahra

Chandra had always wanted to film the unique and interesting people that they are, but couldn’t find a “hook” till they moved to Lahra more than a decade back. She shot the film over a week last year, when she went visiting the place for the first time. “Everyone came together [on the project] just out of affection for the subject,” she says of her producer Anupama Mandloi and the crew. The aunts, in turn, allowed them unconditional access. “In old age, you become unencumbered; they have lived life to the fullest and don’t care what the world thinks of them,” says Chandra, on their no-holds-barred approach to the camera.\

The sunshine girls: inside Tanuja Chandra’s documentary 'Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha'

The charm of her “passion project” lies in the personalities of the lively protagonists — Radha Rani Sharma and Sudha Garg — and their belief that they are living through the best phase of their lives. The fly-on-the-wall camera captures the unhurried rhythm, the little details as they go through their day — the first cuppa, the strong opinions on the titillating news in the local dailies, the skirmishes over the flowers and fountain in the garden, the joy of increased amounts of pension thanks to the hike in DA (dearness allowance) or showing off their great collection of saris.

Life lessons

There is an uncommon sense of humour; “the intrinsic, specific and odd UP thing”, as Chandra puts it. They can’t resist taking potshots at themselves and each other. “Bemulki nawab” (royalty without a kingdom) is the turn of phrase they use for themselves and their extravagant, lavish ways. Or rath (chariots) as they call the walkers they are saddled with. “‘Achchi hoon, marne ke koi aasaar nahin hain (I am well, there are no intimations of death)’, is how they respond when we ask how they are,” laughs Chandra.

It’s a rare friendship of sisters that is as much about affection as it is about constant fights. There is a candid admission of anger issues and disagreements, but they are laughed away just as easily. Behind their infectious cheerfulness are the more profound lessons of life. While one is thankful for having been granted a largely happy and peaceful life, the other is stoic about the many ups and downs — the illness, early marriage and widowhood — in hers. The dignity remains, even in adversity.

There is an immense grace in their an acceptance of old age and the inevitable mortality. And the hope that the end would be swift and sudden, not a lingering one.

The sunshine girls: inside Tanuja Chandra’s documentary 'Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha'

The little helpers

Then there is the retinue of staff and helpers. In bonding with them, the old-world hierarchies are maintained as much as they are broken. The aunts may yell at them but they can be as insolent and cheeky. “They have reached an honesty that we crave for in relationships,” says Chandra. The alternative family could well be an ideal post-retirement model of community living in these increasingly fractured times. The staff looks after, gives care, and in turn, gets their share of produce from specific acres in the aunt’s vast fields.

Most heart-warming is the two admitting feeling happy to be living for themselves, being in the “oasis of warmth and freedom” as Chandra puts it. And they’d rather be where they are, eating lauki (bottle gourd) and turai (sponge gourd), than live any place else in the world.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 7:25:29 AM |

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