Some of us visit elderly relatives and return with fuzzy feelings and sweet memories. Tanuja Chandra came back with a documentary.
Chandra’s Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha is an account of her visit in 2018 to her paternal aunts, who live in Lahra village in Uttar Pradesh. Radha is 93 and Sudha is 86. As the film reveals, the cheerful old women appear to be managing just fine, shuffling around their rambling house in their nighties with the aid of walkers. They share a bed, have minor arguments, mostly about the quality of the cooking (Sudha is a stickler for perfection), but confess, “We can’t do without each other.”
There are no children or husbands around. Instead, a small group of domestic workers of various faiths completes the unusual family unit. Small plots of land have been carved out of the family’s ample fields for the workers, and festivals are celebrated together. Here is one place under the sun where the warmth never runs out, the film suggests.
Produced by Anupama Mandloi, Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha was premiered at the Madrid International Film Festival earlier in August. The 48-minute documentary will travel to other festivals too, including Chicago and Seattle. “I had wanted to do something about my aunts for a while, since I found them to unique and interesting,” Chandra told Scroll.in. The women have been living in Lahra for about 12 years, and had been coaxing Chandra to come visit. Chandra’s parents would drop by every year, and they told her about the unique support system that the women had built.
“They both found themselves in a place without any responsibilities to others, and they decided to move in with each other. I found the idea really charming,” Chandra observed. “In our fractured world, where there is only struggle and war and hatred of different communities, here is a small pocket of warmth, a model of co-existence and inter-dependence.”
Chandra visited Lahra with a small crew in April 2018. The documentary captures the mostly unvarying routine in the women’s lives. It revolves around bed tea, a perusal of the newspapers (Sudha reads out the more sensational stories to Radha), and discussions about which vegetables are to be bought and what is to be grown in the garden. The love between the sisters, as well as the mutual regard between the women and their staff, strongly come through.
An infectious fondness abounds in the documentary, which is punctuated by Chandra’s chortles at her aunts’ remarks. The women seem amused, at best, at the filmmaking crew prowling around their home, and they show no trace of self-consciousness. The two cameras deployed for the shoot kept moving around “gently and silently”, Chandra said.
“My aunts would smile once in a while at the cameras, but they were mostly unaware of their existence,” she recalled. “They have reached a stage where they were not interested in impressing anybody. They wondered if the film had any value. They were just happy to host me and my small crew, and they loved feeding us and interacting with us. The film ended up being as natural as it would be even without a camera.”
There are poignant moments too, when talk revolves around departed husbands and health problems. Sudha speaks about her desire for a sudden death, the kind you get from a heart attack merciful enough to be quick. She follows up her wish with a smile.
It was important for Chandra to maintain a lighthearted tone in her documentary. She made her debut as a writer on Mahesh Bhatt’s Tamanna in 1997, and moved on to direct her own films starting with the thriller Dushman in 1998. After struggling with mainstream fare of indifferent quality, Chandra shifted direction with the 9/11-themed Hope and a Little Sugar in 2008. In 2017, she made the warmly received Qarib Qarib Singlle, a rom-com for grown-ups starring Parvathy and Irrfan.
“The truly great stuff comes from real life, and I try to percolate that into fictional stories,” Chandra said. “The learning has been that serious stuff can be expressed in a lighter manner, it need not be heavy.”
It’s hard work to generate lightness on the screen, but it helps when you have such satisfied and sagacious subjects as Sudha and Radha. “The world is so youth-oriented, but old people have so much to teach,” said Chandra, whose next projects include a feature film and a web series. “If only younger people could have a modicum of this kind of wisdom towards life and dealing with old age and being alone, we would all have better lives.”
The documentary also captures a world that is in danger of fading. Only one of the women has a phone, for instance. “For me, this was also an attraction – this is about to be completely over,” Chandra said. “Twenty years down the line, this will be history – two people who can live without computers and social media and phones.” Who needs Twitter or Instagram when you can have the satisfaction of a life fully lived?