What if you come across a man who will believe only what he sees with his own eyes, and negate everything he can’t? Will you call him eccentric and ignore him? Or humour him, and hear him out? Rajat Kapoor’s beautifully written and directed ‘Aankhon Dekhi’ breathes life into such a man, fills him up with not hot air, but a mix of foolishness and wisdom that is at once arresting, and inviting. He is fool, clown and man, all in one. He is us.
Bauji (Sanjay Mishra) lives with his younger brother (Rajat Kapoor) in one of those cramped first floor quarters, more hovel than ‘haveli’, in Old Delhi’s Fatehpuri area. It has a ‘chhatt’ with ‘janglas’, tiny rooms adjacent to each other, a makeshift kitchen, and a common toilet. The family is joint at the hip in more ways than one, which is evident right from the first scene when Bauji’s daughter Rita (Maya Sarao ) is found to be in a relationship with an allegedly disreputable boy (Namit Das), and all hell breaks loose.
This is not the India which takes part in the sort of sex surveys that are grist to so many glossy magazine mills. This is still the Bharat, under attack from global forces but holding up perilously, where girls have to hide their boyfriends from their over-protective families and nosy neighbours, and where the ‘chacha’ has as much right to clip one across the cheek of the importunate invader as the father.
Those who have grown up in such an atmosphere will instantly recognize Bauji, his ‘chota bhai’, their carping-but-close wives, and their children, growing up and outward, trying to find their place in a rapidly changing world.
Kapoor’s film is an absolute gem, because he gives us a marvelous bunch of characters who make us laugh, and pause, and think. In another film, Bauji would have come off a caricature. But here he is a man in the vital process of sloughing off dead layers, and discovering his skin. Sanjay Mishra does a terrific job of becoming Bauji.
Everyone else pitches in with performances which are as true and felt: Kapoor as the left-out-but-caring ‘chacha’, Bhargava as Bauji’s constant companion, Taranjeet as Kapoor’s wife, and Sarao as the spirited young Rita who wants to marry a fellow of her own choice. And a clutch of familiar faces (Kala, Rishi) and the others who make up the close-knit ‘mohalla’ and the ‘yaar- dost’ who show up for incessant ‘chai’ and chat, and never leave.
Like all Kapoor’s best works, this one also works as a parable. There’s a splendid little thread that finds its way into Bauji’s world, in the shape of a young boy who can’t stop talking. And then comes a moment of silence when he stops. The film halts, and lets us savour the quiet. A random fellow asks direction to Lal Qila ( when you are in Fatehpuri, the Red Fort is all around you, to have someone ask how to find it becomes a great cosmic joke : did that guy ( Kapoor gang-member Ranvir Shorey) get there? ) All our senses are engaged, and we are alive to the hilarity, the absurdity, and the unexpected depths of Bauji and his life. And what it teaches us, with such poignance and ease.
Kapoor directs with a sure eye and an unerring ear for the sounds of the Delhi 6 ( only quibble, the background music swells too loudly : those moments didn’t need that kind of underlining). He is also one of the few Indian directors who understands whimsy : it is in every frame, but never overdone, making this a film rich in what appear to be small but are actually significant pleasures.