The issue that Ananth Mahadevan has raised in his Marathi film Aata Vel Zaali (It’s Time To Go) is worthy of debate – the right to die with dignity but how he wants to convey the mindset of his protagonists is not adequately thought through. At a time when ageing is seen as a curse, a film in which the protagonists repeatedly speak of ending an “unproductive” life is problematic.

In most films about mercy killing or euthanasia in India and elsewhere, the characters who wish for death are either terminally ill or suffering the debility of old age. In theory, the idea of a person being able to choose when they wish to die is appealing, and turning suffering into a virtue is troubling too.

But if there are laws against euthanasia, it is because of the legal, moral, ethical and religious minefields. Some countries have legalised medically assisted suicide. In Indian culture there is the concept of ichha mrityu (willing death), while Jains have a ritual fast-unto-death.

In Aata Vel Zaali, Shashidhar Lele (Dilip Prabhavalkar) and his wife Ranjana (Rohini Hattangadi) are aged 70 and 65 respectively. They are in perfect health. They want to die before they get ill, incapacitated, or dependent on relatives. It’s not just a question of ending their lives: they want the President to legally permit active euthanasia.

Shashidhar keeps quoting from various sources about the right to die, but his arguments come off as specious. He also appears to be eccentric – he even advertises in a newspaper for a contract killing. It’s surprising that Ranjana, who had the courage to choose not to have children, follows him like a brainwashed devotee. Ranjana says that they had many discussions on the subject that convinced her, but the dialogue about these exchanges should have been a part of the film is missing.

The film ends up making light of a situation that may be vital for some people. Perhaps without intending to, Aata Vel Zaali, like the Japanese classic The Ballad Of Narayama or the more recent Plan 75 and the Malayalam-language Thalaikoothal suggests that the elderly are a burden on society.

The movie doesn’t deploy black humour, nor does it have the emotional punch of films on the subject, such as Whose Life it is Anyway?, The Sea Inside or even Guzaarish. Sadly, the climax is also hopelessly absurd.

Mahadevan hits pay dirt with the casting of Dilip Prabhavalkar and Rohini Hattangadi, who have the comfortable, creased look of a long-married couple. The chawl in which Mahadevan has set his film conveys the lost charm of community living, in which the elderly would not be lonely or marginalised.

Aata Vel Zaali (2023).