There is a quietly poignant sequence in Astu . Dr Chakrapani Shastri (Mohan Agashe), a reputed Sanskrit scholar and an Alzheimer’s patient, has Post-its stuck on the family photographs on the wall, with names of the members in the pictures: the daughters, the son-in-law, the grandchildren. There is one image of his own with the imprint: “This is me, Appa”. Just that one shot is enough to connect with the predicament of an immensely learned man who had known the ancient texts, the Vedic tenets and the teachings of Zen and Tao by heart but can’t remember something very basic now: who he is.
Astu is a gentle, seemingly simple film that captures an old man in decline — degenerating physically and losing control of his mental faculties as well. It’s about his gradual fading away. It also captures the dilemmas of the family that is losing someone dear, bit by bit, minute by minute, to dementia. It’s about their having to love someone who can’t realise or receive that emotion any more. Is it better to let go then, to send him off to an institution, as suggested by the rational in the family? Or to continue to take care of him, of becoming a parent to the father who has now become like your child? How much can you bind yourself to someone? How much of him is yours and how much of him remains a stranger? Isn’t life all about coming in and going away from this world all alone? Then there’s Appa talking about the Zen truth — about living in the moment. The only way he can be, because, in his condition, he can’t even remember if he has had a meal just a few minutes ago. There are many such philosophical layers bolstering the story.
What happens one fine day when the family loses Appa, when he goes missing? The film spreads out over this one day of loss and recovery. Appa’s caretaker, a young college student, has to appear in an exam so he is picked up by his daughter Ira (Irawati Harshe) to spend the day at her place. While driving with him home she stops at the market to pick up some fabric for her daughter. Appa, locked inside the car, gets fascinated like a child, by an elephant passing by, gets himself out of the car with the help of the owner and keeps wandering along with the mammal through the lanes of Pune even as the daughter and her husband run from the cop station to his old institute and other haunts in his search.
Though the film is about loss of memory it’s structured and built around a series of recollections. The unhurried, measured narrative is all about going back and forth in time to bring a man alive, one who is a pale shadow of his old self. It is also about unravelling the relationship fabric — the sibling rivalry for the parents’ affection, the unspoken secrets, unshared confidences and unresolved guilt. Just like in any other family.
It’s quite pertinent then that this man with no reminiscences should be chasing a mammal known for its gargantuan memory. Forgetting the self and the memories might be the problem of Appa but it is also something Ira’s life revolves around. It’s what she teaches actors in the theatre workshop — to forget self in order to play someone else, to be able to enact diverse roles.
The idea quite obviously is to build awareness about the disease but the film doesn’t slip into sermonizing, it remains sensitive not sentimental. It’s the protracted, at times droll last one third of the narrative, involving the elephant owner Anta (Nachiket Purnapatre) and his wife Channama (Amruta Subhash), how they take Appa into their family fold unconditionally and their categorical love and compassion for him that does keel towards becoming a moral discourse, an example for his kids to follow. Strength, empathy and humaneness is what the film calls for, through this poor couple.
The characters, even the marginal ones, are well-rounded and the performances are immaculate. But the twin fulcrums of the film are Mohan Agashe as Appa, learned and strong one minute, childlike and vulnerable the next. A mental health consultant himself, Agashe gets into Appa’s demanding and difficult part with sheer ease. Irawati Harshe is just as effortless in bringing out the repressed anger, the long held grudges, the frustrations and desperation of Ira. Astu , that won the Best Dialogue and Supporting Actress (Amruta Subhash) National Awards in 2013, has taken a long time to arrive at the theatres. But, as they say, better late than never.
Astu (So Be It)
Rating: Four stars
Director: Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar
Starring: Dr Mohan Agashe, Irawati Harshe, Milind Soman, Amruta Subhash
Run time: 123 mins