Astu: When Alzheimer's Strikes

The Marathi film Astu, which deals with Alzheimer's, was completed two years ago this month. It has been screened in all the major film festivals in India. It won two national awards last year -- Sumitra Bhave for dialogue and Amruta Subhash for best actor in a supporting role (female). At the beginning of the year, Dr Mohan Agashe won the critics' Filmfare award for best actor. Those who have seen the film have raved about it. And yet, so far, it has not been released in this city. "The distribution system is feudal," says Agashe, co-producer of the film. "Distributors are landlords. We are mere peasants."

Screened on Sunday at the Third Eye Asian Film Festival, Astu, sensitively directed  by Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar, more than lived up to expectations. Alzheimer's has been a mental condition of abiding interest to film-makers, theatre directors and writers. It poses questions that relate to the very fundaments of human life. Koham? Who am I? Am I my past, my relationships, my home, my work? Am I this gross body or something more subtle? When Alzheimer's strikes, does it destroy my personhood? In what does my personhood lie? Am I not a person now, when I have fallen into a state of pristine innocence?

Iris, directed by Richard Eyre, was the real life story of Iris Murdoch, one of the finest British novelists of her generation. When dementia took hold of her complex mind, causing it to crumble gradually, she turned into a clinging child who watched Teletubbies with a look of awed concentration on her face. Meanwhile her sole carer, her husband John Bayley, lived through the pain of seeing her go, first as the person he had loved, and then as the body that had held that person.

Sumitra Bhave's screenplay for Astu is remarkable for the subtle way in which it details this loss of the past, this retardation into childhood where only the present moment counts. If Murdoch watched Teletubbies, Dr Chakrapani Shastri (Mohan Agashe), once a profoundly knowledgeable Sanskrit scholar, finds childlike joy in a passing elephant. He escapes from his daughter Ira's car while she (Irawati Harshe) is doing a bit of shopping and follows Lakshmi the elephant through over-crowded streets, till finally, the mahout (Nachiket Purnapatre), agrees to give him a ride. For Dr Shastri this is pure joy and the beginning of a playful relationship with the mahout's little daughter. Even when the ride is done, he doggedly follows Lakshmi till the helpless mahout brings him home to his wife Chanamma (Amruta Subhash) and the impoverished shelter they live in. At one point in the course of the day, the old man soils his pajamas. Chanamma looks at him briefly, adjusts her mental compass and does what needs doing. She cleans him. And he responds by calling her Ai, mother.

Agashe's every move, look and gesture is calibrated minutely to mirror the inner world of this old man turned child. His new relationships are captured in a touching scene, where he and the little girl are fast asleep against the generous belly of the sleeping Lakshmi while Chanamma sings a haunting lullabye to the baby on her lap.

Central to Astu, are three different responses to the painful situation created by Dr Shastri's condition. His younger daughter Rahi (Devika Daftardar), argues that he is no longer the father they knew and loved. The situation must therefore be faced rationally. "Let's look for an institution," she says. This is unacceptable to Ira. A child's duty is to care for her parents till their death she argues in an emotional outburst. In her effort to deal with the situation, she returns obsessively to the past when her father, in command of his mind, would recite verses from ancient Sanskrit texts. These contemplative verses add a rich layer of sound and significance to the film, offering a luminous philosophical context to the human condition itself.

The third response is Chanamma's, expressed in the leave-taking scene when the old man's family comes to take him away. His eyes, as he looks at Chanamma are filled with implicit trust; hers with an unforced human compassion. As the family leaves, she says to Ira, "Look after him as a child."  This gentle injunction reflects the idea of acceptance that the film's title Astu (So be it), carries. Chanamma accepts Dr Shastri for what he is, here and now. He is a child in need of care. So be it. Astu.

Published On : 30-12-2015