The Bengali words “ahare mon” roughly translate to “poor heart”. But “mon” also means mind – the word denotes both the emotional and the cognitive. Matters of the mon are thus a tricky affair, something only the most assured can negotiate. Pratim D Gupta does this successfully in Ahare Mon, released on June 22.

When Ahare Mon was announced as “the new film from the writer-director of Machher Jhol”, I was immediately curious. The 2017 food-themed movie had been special to me – it was the first Bengali film I had watched with my daughter in a theatre. Even her five-year-old self could sense the filial bond at the core of this film named after fish curry. The film stayed with her for a while. While occasionally having her own machher jhol-bhat after returning home from school in the following weeks, she would remember the attractive variations of it that she had seen on the big screen!

But in Ahare Mon, Gupta serves a very different dish. He offers four stories that run parallel, coming together in a surprise twist at the end. The stories trace unusual relationships – between a frequent flyer and an immigration officer, a dying teenager and her screen idol, two charming crooks from different socio-economic backgrounds and two residents at an old-age home.

While the film’s attempt to bring the stories together seems inorganic, the structural unity of the plot is less important than its philosophical one, in the nature of the bonds between the characters. Each story explores different shades of love at different stages of life.

Ahare Mon (2018).

The film also reminded me of two much-loved movies of the previous decade: Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003) and Anurag Basu’s Life in a Metro (2007), which too linked individual tales of romance together in one overarching plot.

Like these films, Ahare Mon also has an ensemble cast. But there are subtle, though important, differences. Love Actually, coming in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, stressed the value of love over hate against the backdrop of Christmas festivities. Life in a Metro, on the other hand, was as much about the city of Mumbai and what it exacts from its inhabitants as it was about the love. As Irrfan Khan’s Monty tells Konkona Sen Sharma’s Shruti in film: “Yeh sheher hume jitna deta hai, badle mein use kayi zyada humse le leta hain” (This city takes from us much more than it gives).

In Ahare Mon, it is difficult to choose a favourite among the stories, thanks to pitch-perfect performances by an incredibly talented cast. Most of them have worked in the director’s previous films and bring a comfortable ease to the characters they portray. Chitrangada Chakraborty makes a striking debut as the terminally ill Titli, who is madly in love with the superstar, Dev. Ritwick Chakraborty is adorable as the seasoned crook Michael Tendulkar who finds a surprising mate in Parno Mitra’s Suzie Q. There is a bubbly innocence about their bond that is missing in the teenager’s story, which is overshadowed by an imminent death.

Anjan Dutta and Mamata Shankar bring a measured mellowness to their performances as two senior citizens abandoned by their children who find companionship in one another. The veterans have performed together frequently, since their first joint appearance in Mrinal Sen’s Kharij (1982), and their chemistry hasn’t waned one bit with time. Each brings their unique flavour to their character. For instance, Shakar infuses dignity and pathos into her Charulata Dutta, who, like her literary namesake from Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Nastanirh, finds true love outside marriage. She is able to reveal this long-held secret only to Dutta’s Barun Babu.

The most memorable story, however, is that of Paoli Dam’s Ramona and Adil Hussain’s Purnendu Pahari. One would imagine there is very little in a staid, middle-aged immigration officer that would attract a young, successful, independent woman. But she is drawn to him when, after an argument, he apologises for his mistake and praises her forthrightness. Subsequently, they interact regularly during her frequent trips out of the country. She starts enjoying their conversations so much that she manoeuvres the queues to ensure she’s interviewed by him at the airport.

Adil Hussain in 'Ahare Mon'. Credit: AVMA Media LLP

Hussain is unforgettable as a scheduled caste immigration officer, burdened early in life with an ailing widowed mother and doomed to loneliness. Purnendu has a way with words, and is given the best lines in the film. In opening of Love Actually, David says, “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think of the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport” – because of the love that people spontaneously display while welcoming their dear ones. Purnendu is moved to a similar reflection during a conversation with his colleagues, where they all complain about their dull jobs. Unlike them, he likes his work. He loves seeing the play of emotions on the travellers’ faces – excited when they are about to embark on a journey and somewhat tired but satisfied upon return, enriched by new experiences.

It is this ability of his to look into other’s lives that makes him extraordinary. More than love or chemistry, theirs is a story of empathy and compassion – much like the film itself.

That distinction is very fine, something that many might miss. But the film is essentially about the deep understanding between people, even when the romantic love is not reciprocal. It is this compassion that makes Barun Babu pledge to find Charulata’s lost love, Titli’s elderly companions in the hospital share her obsession about Dev, and even the young crooks’ plan to steal to help a poor family.

Romantic love has been done to death in films – probably because that’s the only place where it still exists in that form. But Ahare Mon is a rare movie that explores the beauty of love that comes in all shapes and forms, and in the human bonds that help make life bearable.