What do people talk about when they are killing time in hospital wards? Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar showed in Talk To Her (2002) that a hospital waiting room is a good place to get a measure of the human condition. Two men tending to their comatose partners share confidences on love and loss, and through their exchanges, a tough and tender examination of morality and romantic love unfolds.
The idea of waiting has literal and putatively philosophical dimensions in Anu Menon’s second film after London, Paris, New York. The newly married Tara (Kalki Koechlin) flies to Kochi where her husband Rajat (Arjun Mathur) lies in a coma in a superspeciality hospital. There, she meets Shiv (Naseeruddin Shah), whose wife Pankaja (Suhasini) has been lying motionless in a neighbouring ward ward for the past eight months. The pragmatic doctor in charge (Rajat Kapoor) advises Shiv to take his wife off the ventilator, but he refuses. Meanwhile, Tara deals with the initial shock of her husband’s condition and the inevitable rush of guilt, anger and frustration. Should she agree to an operation that might rescue Arjun but rob him of his abilities?Tara and Shiv form an unlikely friendship in the hospital cafeteria. Shiv predicts the reaction of the doctors to Rajat’s condition – “The next 48 hours will be crucial,” he mimes – and helpfully slips her a strip of sleeping tablets to help her through the nights.
The movie is set in Kochi but plays out in a bubble filled with deracinated people with enough money to afford the posh hospital (Aster Medcity) depicted in the movie and enough coolness to share confidences with complete strangers. The dialogue, a mix of English and Hindi, aims for a chatty and conversational style, and it sometimes hits the mark. But banality is inescapable. Tara has some of the most unfriendly lines: “People are shit. I just hate people” and “I’m so fucking done with you!”
Neither of the partners is adequately developed, and are accordingly billed as special appearances. The talented Suhasini, a veteran of Tamil and Malayalam cinema, is especially wasted in a role that requires her to lie on a bed with her eyes shut.
All the attention is on Shiv and Tara, fellow travellers on a life-changing journey and played by actors who are fully committed to their roles. Shiv’s character is better etched than Tara’s – he has spent too many decades with his wife to unhook the machine and watch her die – and Naseeruddin Shah captures his character’s nuances within the limitations of the screenplay.
Kalki Koechlin has a tougher time as Tara. Her character is too emotionally fraught and petulant to be endearing. Tara’s reaction to the sudden departure of her friend Ishita (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), who has abandoned home and hearth to visit her, is telling. Tara has a hissy fit, and insists that Ishita is abandoning her. Since Tara is shown to have no relatives and a troubled relationship with her mother-in-law, she only has herself to deal with – and Shiv.
The friendship between the next of kin develops far too quickly and without warning to be credible. Waiting rooms do engender such sudden bondings, but it’s a huge leap to imagine Shiv and Tara spending all their spare time with each other. They vibe as well as backpackers who’ve met on a trip, and become fast friends before you can say “How convenient.” Tara’s informal manner and profanity-laced speech does not bother Shiv in the least. Tara even takes Shiv lingerie shopping, and he pretends to be shocked. They share a joint and later spend a night at his house, where they drink and dance their woes away. When dawn breaks, her head lies platonically on his lap.
Waiting is too sparsely plotted to realise its ambitions, but Menon, who has co-written the film with James Ruzicka, does raise important questions on the dilemmas faced by the family members of comatose patients. Who decides the treatment methods, and when is it time to stop waiting and move on? A less neat and more rigourously written movie would have waited for the uncomfortable answers to these knotty questions to come less easily.