SAATH SAATH ONCE AGAIN
Millions go to the cinema to watch the likes of Salman Khan in trashy movies week after week, year on year. Some of us have waited decades to see Farooque Shaikh play the lead in a film. Just to hear the man say, "I love you" to his longtime screen companion Deepti Naval is well worth the price of a ticket for Listen Amaya. Why? Because when he speaks, the feeling gushes to the surface effortlessly and transcends the stagey atmosphere of this film.
The hallmark of a great actor is his ability to infuse his character with layers and nuances, sometimes beyond the pale of the screenplay. That he is a guilt-ridden father and husband still unable to cope with the accidental death of his family. He, Jayant, and Leela the widow whose cafe he frequents, have an easy friendship which seamlessly transforms into love. Much as he adores Leela's daughter Amaya (Swara Bhaskar) he also understands her inability to accept his feelings for her mother. His realisation that he's running out of time, but equally, refusal to force his hand. Shaikh conveys Jayant's loneliness and confusion often without dialogues and employing minimal theatrics.
It's not just the nostalgia, perhaps he and Naval work so well together because they have a similar approach to acting––easygoing and understated––it's like two seasoned vocalists rendering a perfectly harmonious duet. Leela is anguished by her otherwise modern daughter's defiant self-absorption and pigheaded opposition. But she can't separate her need for companionship from Amaya's happiness. Her loneliness is mapped through modulation of expression, her kindly smile and her silences––which Naval used equally well in her earlier film Memories In March. The mother-daughter relationship has a lived-in quality that's so rare for Hindi cinema.
Swara Bhaskar's is the toughest part and she redeems herself very well even when the script fails her. It isn't impossible to imagine a free-spirited young woman suddenly turning annoyingly conservative about her mother's love for a man other than her father and behaving like a petulant child, but the manner in which it's sometimes presented makes her look like a spoilt brat.
A key moment in the first half has mother and daughter engaged in a silent exchange as the former tries to express her feelings for Jayant and the latter turns her face away. Conceptually it's a beautiful scene––people do stop talking in situations like these because it's hard to justify yourself when intimate relationships develop a sudden distance. But how the artificiality of the framing ruins it!
Avinash Kumar Singh is a first-time director and his lack of experience shows in the pacing and the under-developed and poorly performed peripheral characters. Putting veterans and amateurs in the same frame makes scenes look affected––such as the one where Jayant sees a little girl on an Old Delhi street and imagines her as his long lost daughter. Much of the film is set in the cafe that Leela runs and while it looks bright and pretty, the FabIndia furniture catalogue is distracting because we know it's in-film branding.
Gradually though, the narrative picks up as the different strands of memory and forgetting come together neatly so that, when you see Jayant standing at a traffic light towards the end and the camera goes whirling around him, you get a sense that life has come full circle. But for a film that should have trusted its silences and its lead actors to carry the emotional payload, there's too much background music cuing us in. And at least two of the songs are needless, although "Kashmakash", used at a critical moment in the drama, is beautifully rendered.
A few years ago, Pyaar Mein Twist, a mediocre film about a sunset romance, was rescued by the easy chemistry between Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia. Listen Amaya has a much softer core and a dignified sensibility, yet its appeal hinges largely on the lead pair’s maturity and warmth. But hey, I am not complaining. Bring them back for an encore!