“My God, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?”
-- from the short story "White Nights" by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Ahista Ahista is a film that I love; it’s a film that moves me, and yet, it's also a film that troubles me.
It’s a yet another adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoyevsky short story “White Nights” – and honestly, I’ve read and reread this story and, like the Devdas story, I wonder what it inspires in filmmakers, that so many of them want to explore it.
That said – I particularly like how the film takes the story and transforms it, how Dostoyevsky’s Dreamer becomes Ankush, a man with limited outlook who works in a place that is all about dreams – about the dreams of being in love, of getting married – Ankush works as someone who makes the dreams of others come true.
Ankush (Abhay Deol) is a simple guy, living in his simple world. He's a witness-for-hire at the local marriage registration office, with his simple patter down, his fee of 200 rupees, and his little community (the guy who runs the local phone booth, the musician who plays for the newly wedded couples) centred around the wedding business -- if you can call it a business. More, scraping by earning a living.
One day, Ankush delivers his custom lines to a young woman, Megha (Soha Ali Khan), who is waiting outside the office for her boyfriend to arrive, so they can get married. Megha has run away from her home to be with Dheeraj (Shayan Munshni). For Megha, there is no turning back -- she has left her family a letter, and there's no way to return home except in disgrace.
Which, for Megha, becomes a huge problem when Dheeraj fails to turn up for their appointment. Megha waits, at first persistently, and then, helplessly. She is a woman alone, in Delhi, who has cut ties with her past, and the future she had planned has suddenly slipped out from under her.
Ankush notices her, too -- at first, giving her encouragement that her boyfriend will turn up, and then, realizing her helplessness, he sets out to help her. He doesn't know why -- later he tells Megha that he knows he wouldn't have helped her if she had been a man, but he doesn't do it because she's a woman in the way she thinks -- not for love, not for sex. But beyond that, he has no reason.
After a series of thwarted attempts to find Megha somewhere safe to stay, Ankush finds Megha a job at a local old age home. The downside is, Megha needs a deposit of 10,000 rupees for her living quarters. Ankhush borrows the money for her, but, realizing that his marriage witness job won't be enough to pay it back, he takes a job as an account rep for a bank -- essentially, convincing people to sign up for an account, for which he earns a commission.
And it turns out the personable Ankush is good at this -- but still not good enough to get enough people signed up in order to earn his commission. Megha comes to the rescue, pointing out that he has in his marriage witness diary the names of couples who surely couldn't refuse to open an account if he asked them. Ankush easily earns the money to pay back his loan, and his hard work and success pay off -- he's offered a position as an Assistant Manager.
Suddenly, Ankush's unambitious life has changed, and all because of Megha. He set out to help her, and in the course of that, ended up helping himself. The new job comes with a string attached: he must learn English. But Ankush feels that the changes Megha has caused in him mean that this, too, is something within his reach.
And something else happens to Ankush -- without his even realizing it, gradually, gradually (as the title suggests), Ankush has fallen in love with Megha. He asks her to marry him, and after thinking about it, Megha decides to close the door on her old life, and accepts.
Everything is going well for Ankush, until one day, when Dheeraj turns up looking for Megha. A series of attempts by Ankush to prevent Dheeraj finding her backfire, and when he does find her, Megha realizes that she has misjudged Dheeraj, and also that in the end, she still loves him. Megha and Dheeraj are married in the local registration office, and Ankush, once again, serves as one of the paid witnesses.
So, I started this off by saying that Ahista Ahista is a film that I love, a film that moves me, and a film that troubles me.
Here's what I love about the film:
Mostly? I love Ahista Ahista just for Abhay Deol's performance. And if I love first films for the potential they hold, I adore when second films give me the payoff I'd hoped for.
I really enjoyed Abhay Deol as Ankush. Ankush isn't a hustler, he's just a simple guy, living his simple life, until suddenly one day his eyes are opened to other possibilities. I love how Ankush doesn't plan on falling in love with Megha, but when he does, it's not a grand thing, it's just one more thing that builds his confidence in himself just a little bit more. Ankush stands in such contrast to the brash, cocky Viren of Socha Na Tha, and it is wonderful to watch the shift that Abhay Deol makes in his second film.
Abhay Deol has said that Ahista Ahista is a film that is character-driven and not plot-driven, and he's not wrong. The plot is simple, and the pacing of the film is slow. It's a film where the most important things happen gradually. It's a film totally worth watching for Abhay Deol alone. And yet, the icing on this cake is that the supporting cast in the film is wonderful. I adore when attention is given to fleshing out the supporting players, and that certainly happens in Ahista Ahista, writer Imtiaz Ali creates a kind of family for Ankush, in the way that those without much family of their own tend to find and support each other.
Okay, next, what troubles me about the film: I think the film's ending -- no, not just the ending, but how Megha reaches that decision to marry Dheeraj -- is probably the thing that bothers me most about the film. I grow to like Megha over the course of the film. I watch her devasted silence as she believes she has been dumped. She is frozen, unable to act, and I feel just as crushed and helpless as she does. And even though she has to be rescued by Ankush, I still love how she accepts what needs to be done, and does it. More than that, though -- as she begins to build a new life for herself, I love how she helps and encourages Ankush, even in very small ways. I love how she remains shy, but you start to see the light come back into her life.
And I really, really feel for her when Dheeraj turns up again -- how she has to deal with the fact that she believed the love of her life could leave her, instead of thinking something must have happened to him (though, frankly, who wouldn't think that, given the situation?). How she must reconcile that with the new life she has slowly built for herself, and the future she has planned with Ankush.
But I find it really hard to swallow that she would so easily decide to marry Dheeraj and dump Ankush as she does. I could have accepted her not marrying Ankush and needing time to figure out what else to do. But the way that happens -- how she so quickly opens the door on her life with Dheeraj again -- suggests that she really didn't care for Ankush, and was marrying him -- why? Out of convenience? Out of gratitude? That thought troubles me and makes me inordinately sad. On the other hand: I have this profound sense that in some way, Ankush is not unlike Dostoevsky's Dreamer, who, despite assuring the woman he meets that their relationship would be nothing more than friendship, falls in love with her anyway, so perhaps I should cut Megha some slack.
So. Finally. What really moves me about Ahista Ahista is connected to Megha, to her silences, to her helplessness as she finds her self in a situation for which there seems to be no turning back. I've been where Megha is, been in a situation from which there seems no way out, and I can completely understand her reaction, being so shaken and in such shock that one needs to rely on help from someone else. If I'd had someone like Ankush to rescue me, I know I would have let him do it.
But -- I had this profound sense, watching Ahista Ahista, that I'd seen Megha somewhere before, and after scratching my brains for a good long while, I finally figured it out:
In Satyajit Ray's 1960 film Devi, a young woman, Doya, is mistakenly believed to be the reincarnation of the goddess Kali (the goddess of creation and destruction) by her father-in-law. Out of duty to him, she reluctantly sits for hours and hours on end as devotees of Kali learn the news and come to seek her blessings. Doya becomes trapped in a situation that grows increasingly obsessional, and from which there seems to be no escape, and she spends much of the film staring like this, and the inner turmoil it represents is palpable.
I'm not sure if it was writer Imtiaz Ali's or director Shivam Nair's direct intention to echo those scenes from Devi, but they surely must be familiar with Ray's work, and even if it may be a happy coincidence, I found it kind of delightful that for me, Soha Ali Khan's Megha caused me to recall her mother, Sharmila Tagore, in Devi. And for me, it was enough of a moment of happiness to last me.
But Ahista Ahista reserved one more little gem for me. Despite my dislike of the Devdas story, I'm kind of fascinated with references to it in films, and there's one here. When Ankush finally confronts Megha, he asks her if she thought, well:
He assures her, he will not. At the film's end, I'm not so sure.
-- Ivan Turgenev