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Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Who is the loneliest of them all? (Pestonjee)

Seriously, there are so many degrees and kinds of loneliness in this world. While one might appear perfectly happy from outside, may be suffering from some crippling and gloomy depression from inside. While others may think his life is perfect, he himself knows what the abject truth is. Pestonjee, a brilliant chronicle depicting life of the miniscule community of the Bombay Parsis delves on these several kinds of loneliness suffered by man. Vijaya Mehta's 1988 tale is perfect, poignant and makes one travel with Phirojshah as he tries to seek happiness by living someone else's life.

I suddenly remembered this film while watching Goutam Ghose's Paar. Needless to mention I'm immensely fond of Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi and think that actors like them will never ever be. But despite Ghose's hard-hitting drama being one of the most acclaimed films, I failed to be engaged by it. Only the last half an hour kept me glued to my seat. Depicting the final struggle of the village couple through the Ganges while taking 36 pigs across really was a masterstroke by the director. And of course the last scene of hope and renewal. Other than that, Paar was a tad slow for my taste.
That brought me to Pestonjee, a film that many years ago was brought into my notice. A documentary on Naseeruddin Shah spoke of his multifaceted talent and how he got into the skin of his characters every single time. In Pestonjee, no one will doubt that Shah is actually a Parsi. He talks like one, walks like one and even has mannerisms like one. There was a Parsi English teacher in my brother;s school whose house we used to visit often (he was also my father's dear friend and colleague). He was a bachelor living all alone in a old world mansion. Phirojshah's abode and lifestyle reminded me of this Mr Kapadia. The clothes he wears outside and at home, the way he deals with his Man Friday and the lovely old mansion he lives in. The furniture is old and charming and they speak of the times in Bombay that are fast fading. Winding wooden staircases, huge balconies, those old elevators, carved writing desks, et al. Everything is so perfectly presented in the film. The Parsi community is fast dwindling they say. But even today, if you go to those localities in Bombay where Parsis inhabited you'll get to see this picture, maybe with a bit of a modern twist. Anyways, let's get cracking on Phirojshah's story.
Pestonjee (Anupam Kher) and Phirojshah are close friends and have done everything together since childhood. So, when it comes to marriage both decide that they will get married on the same day. Phirojshah is the serious kind and thinks five times before deciding anything. He takes many decisions for Pestonjee also (lovingly called Pesi in the film). He instructs Pesi that marriage is a big responsibility and the decision shouldn't be taken in haste. But too much deliberation on horoscope matching fails to clinch the deal this time for Phirojshah. It so happens that Pesi lands up marrying Jeroo (Shabana Azmi), the girl Phirojshah had liked for himself.
But the good soul that he is, he doesn't grudge Pesi the happiness. In fact, he advises Pesi that marriage is all about give and take. When Pesi tries to tell him of some niggling problems with Jeroo, Phirojshah almost always takes Jeroos's side and makes it clear to Pesi that he is indeed lucky to have such a beautiful and sweet wife. He almost vicariously derives the happiness from Pesi's 'happy' life.
But is Pesi really happy? Jeroo is too caught up in her own life, her piano lessons, her past flings. She speaks incessantly about them to Pesi. She looks like she is the perfect homemaker but is she really the one? Phirojshah, after he is transferred to Bhusawal, learns that Jeroo and Pesi are going to have a baby. He is overjoyed. Yes, it's almost as if he is going to have a kid. He even prays to God every night not for himself but for the happiness and prosperity of his friend and his wife. He is always thinking about them. He is almost living his life for them. So when problems creep in Pesi's life, obviously it is Phirojshah who gets amply affected. After five years when he comes to visit Pesi hoping to see the kid, he is aghast to discover that Jeroo has had a miscarriage. Later he is stunned to see that Pesi has a mistress.
But what is devastating for him is how Jeroo has changed. She is no more the pretty girl who Pesi married. She is brash, brazen and unkempt. The softness to her has disappeared and she treats her family members with rudeness. Phirojshah decides that this is Pesi doing. But he doesn't know that Pesi himself is suffering for marrying Jeroo.
As secrets tumble out of the closet, Phirojshah learns that Jeroo loves to dwell in her sadness. In fact her miscarriage was her doing because she did not want a baby. She knows of Pesi's affair and is even remotely not affected by it. She loves living in her own selfish world, a world that has hurt Pesi immensely. It has brought him enough turmoil, dejection and loneliness. And yes, it has driven him to the arms on Suna Mistry (Kiron Kher). There is enough sadness in Pesi's life. Yes, Phirojshah's prayers remained unanswered...
Years pass and Phirojshah tries drifting away from Pesi's life. But he cannot do that totally. Somewhere in the heart if heart he is too attached to Pesi's life. Even when he is trying not to think about them, his mind drifts towards the subject of Pesi and Jeroo. Does that mean that Phirojshah is a loner, with nothing else to do but live a life that belongs to others?
The end is poignant and tragic. Pesi dies suddenly leaving Jeroo and Suna. Phirojshah tries to help Jeroo but she is too involved in her sadness. No one can help her. Suna on the other hand is triumphant in reigning in her sorrows and moving on. Indeed Phirojshah should learn a lesson from her... The woman who he scoffed at for being immoral turns out to be the only source of peace and happiness for Pesi.
The narrative is engaging despite being a tad slow. But I guess, that's because Mehta wanted to draw a lifelike picture of the Parsi community. The speech (supervised by Ratna Pathak) is in chaste Parsi Hindi, so chaste that I sometimes desired subtitles. The performances are brilliant, as usual.
Anupam Kher is good in his title role. He starts of being this carefree Parsi lad who looks up to Phirojshah for every tiny advice. But then, when the problems starts tumbling in, he does take them in his stride and in his own way fights against them. He might be sad inside but one look at him and no one can say so. He is not Jeroo who makes it obvious that something is wrong with her.
Shabana's role is miniscule but she is kickass. No one could imagine that she would start off as a sweet Parsi girl and turn into a depressed soul in dire need of help. She is definitely my favourite actress belonging to the art-house genre of cinema.
But the winner here is Naseeruddin Shah. You feel like bowing to this powerhouse of talent when you see his restrained performance as Phirojshah. He actually becomes the man here. His tongue is faithful to the community and so is his body language. But it is his expressions that would impinge on your mind. A shy man with a steady head on his shoulders, sometimes it really happens that I feel that he moves away from the gloomy world of Pesi and lives a happy life of his own. But then what would Phirojshah's life be without the life of Pestonjee...


  1. Never saw this... but it sounds good. And Shah is a fantastic actor, of course.

  2. @Dustedoff: Watch it. You will be bowled over by Shah and Azmi. Anupam Kher is good too. Sad that such actors will never ever be.

  3. I saw this movie a long time ago, when I was first watching Hindi movies. I remember not loving it, and I can't remember much else about it. Lately I've been thinking about seeing it again; I'd like to revisit a lot of things I watched in those early days and don't think I fully appreciated. More movies than time, as usual! Glad you wrote it up in such detail, I appreciate the refresher.

  4. @Carla: Yeah, I guess you'll interpret it differently now. :)

  5. Naseeruddin really got into the character skin, seriously, he is unbelievable talented. I am not so sure about Shabana, it was not very convincing to me, especially in the first half.I felt the pacing was a bit slow- you can make movies about their world without making it slow. Satyajit Rays Jalsaghar comes to mind, which is the story of a fading landlord. Brilliant movie, but left me sad.

  6. @Hari: Naseeruddin seriously was awesome!!

  7. Something else which struck me was how Vijaya Mehta could portray a slice of Parsi life without stereotyping Parsis. They are with their idiosyncrasies, but there's lot more to them. Never felt like she was caricaturing them.

  8. just watched it..No doubt why Shah is such a jewel in Indian Film Industry.....

  9. Watched it yesterday, got impressed. The way naseer sir gets into the skin of the character is mind boggling. His flickering of eyes, his mannerisms, all are to the dot. Loved it.