Most of us don’t watch movies like Martians freshly arrived on earth, with our minds conveniently turned into blank slates. Our past viewing experiences constantly inform the current one. For instance, if an actor has a distinct screen persona, it might affect the way we look at him even when he plays a different sort of role. And filmmakers sometimes make clever use of this familiarity. Consider the witty casting of Robert De Niro as the father – over-protective of his little girl, keeping an eagle eye on the nervous bumbler who is courting her – in the comedy Meet the Parents. The escalating hysteria of that film depends largely on our knowledge of the dangerous or psychotic characters De Niro played in his pomp, in films ranging from Mean Streets to The Untouchables. Think back to those iconic roles as violent, explosive men and you see why Greg Focker, the unfortunately named hero of Meet the Parents, is so fearful around his girlfriend’s dad.
Last week, a small film titled Listen...Amaya was playing in our halls. Many multiplex-goers were barely aware of its existence, but a dedicated band of people had been awaiting its release weeks in advance. They had guessed beforehand what sort of film this was likely to be: gentle and grounded in the old-world way one associates with the Middle Cinema of the early 1980s. And no wonder, for Listen...Amaya marks the screen reunion of a well-loved couple from that very cinema, Deepti Naval and Farooque Shaikh. In half a dozen movies, the most celebrated of which was Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Baddoor, Naval and Shaikh showed a warm, unforced chemistry, mostly playing the archetypal middle-class boy and girl, slightly shy and hesitant in their affection for each other. There were a couple of variants to this, such as when Shaikh was cast against type as a lovable rogue in Katha. But the essential likability of the characters —and the film itself — was never in question.
They are three decades older in Listen...Amaya, and they have aged beautifully. Naval plays the widowed Leela, who runs a cafe-cum-library, while Shaikh is a photographer named Jayant, whose friendship with Leela deepens into romance, much to the dismay of her daughter Amaya. This is an uneven film with some over-cutesy scenes involving irritating side-characters, but it has many fine moments featuring the two veterans, where there is little expository dialogue but a glance or gesture becomes an insight into the changing shades of a relationship. We pick up on the emotional bond between the elderly lovers, and there is often a real sense for the small, throwaway moment.
I don’t know if Listen...Amaya can be appreciated in a vacuum, but it is certainly enhanced by a viewer’s nostalgic relationship with these actors’ past work. Watching Naval and Shaikh playing old people, I was fondly reminded of their roles in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1983 Rang Birangi, which is one of Hindi cinema’s most charming examinations of the many phases and ages of romantic love. An early scene in that film has their youthful characters — Anita and Jeet — visiting a couple who are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. There is some light banter, the old man makes a few digs at his wife, she pays him back in the same coin, and we note the amalgamation of love and mutual respect that has seen this relationship last so long.
As the old people sing an affectionate song to each other, Anita and Jeet sit by watching, exchanging smiles and glances, perhaps contemplating their own future. I imagine that if the two of them could travel in a time machine to 2013 and watch Listen...Amaya, they would approve of Leela and Jayant as models to emulate in growing old with dignity and shared affection. It is one of the many wonders of cinema as an intimate, interactive experience that we viewers can make such connections with the strangers we see on screen — and that our knowledge of them over the years can so enrich our movie-watching.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer; firstname.lastname@example.org