A character in Sooraj Barjatya’s Uunchai speaks about the two lessons he has learnt from every experience. To use this method, the first takeaway from watching Rajshri Films’ Uunchai is that the upholders of traditional values have reluctantly conceded that the modern family has cracks. Secondly, a film that aims for sympathy or admiration for the elderly unfortunately does just the opposite.
When their single buddy Bhupen (Danny Danzongpa), the most fit among a gang of four, suddenly keels over with a heart attack, the grieving three – writer Amit Shrivastav (Amitabh Bachchan), bookseller Om Sharma (Anupam Kher) and lingerie shop owner Javed Siddiqui (Boman Irani) – decide to fulfil his last wish and make a trek to the Everest Base Camp.
Since Bhupen had no family, it falls upon the three friends to scatter his ashes at the place dear to him. It is strange that over a friendship of several decades, the buddies never travelled to Nepal, to which Bhupen belonged.
The preparations to undertake the expedition, which are obviously beyond the physical scope of seventy-plus men, offer a bit of humour. Also, the foolhardy mission must be kept a secret from Javed’s over possessive wife Shabina (Neena Gupta).
They drive from Delhi to Kathmandu taking detours through Agra, Kanpur, where the Siddiquis’ daughter lives, Gorakhpur to visit Om’s ancestral home and Lucknow, where a mysterious passenger, Mala (Sarika), is to join them. This road trip portion of the film is enjoyable, with the warmth among the actors suffusing their teasing banter. Manoj Kumar Khatoi’s camera captures the vivid colours and landscapes of north India – the parts not seen in the many small-town films and serials crowding the screens with their stories of crime and dysfunctionality.
It is when Uunchai reaches the point from where the difficult trek to the Everest camp is to commence that Abhishek Dixit’s screenplay hits cliche central, even as it stuns with the mist-covered picturesque mountain locations. It is not quite clear how any trekking company would accept such seniors in their group, and if they did, would they mix them with a bunch of youngsters? The tour guide, Shraddha (Parineeti Chopra), can barely conceal her impatience, as the seniors are unable to keep up.
While the trope of senior citizens taking impossible tasks to prove their strength and ne’er say die spirit has been done before, this film also needed loads of humour and unusual situations to carry it off so that audiences don’t feel the irritation of the young group every time one of the older men falls or falters. Although the youngsters are solicitous, this generation takes flak for being apathetic towards older people, particularly their parents. Amit, who has the deepest secret, also has bizarre ideas on aging.
For the armchair mountaineer, Uunchai, is a delight. Audiences get the complete experience, from quaint log cabins to sudden squalls, snow storms and swaying bridges over raging rivers. If the plot leads the three friends towards self-realisation, it is of the superficial kind, as if the film decided what it wanted them to experience and worked backwards.
If the over-long film is bearable, it because the actors make their characters endearing. Bachchan, of course, is pitch perfect (and is given a wardrobe of enviable athleisure and winter wear). Like the man he plays on screen, he chivvies the other along till they reach the finishing line. Uunchai could have been entertaining if it wasn’t so sanctimonious. A film about endurance shouldn’t end up testing the audience.