Actor-turned-director Seema Pahwa brings the warmth of a middle class Lucknow family in her directorial debut, “Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi” (RPKT), which she has also penned, to the silver screen. Starring acting greats such as Naseeruddin Shah and Supriya Pathak, the film is an easily digested slice-of-life treat. The film tells the story of Ramprasad’s family who come together after the patriarch’s sudden demise to perform the Hindu ritual of the “tehrvi” (13 days of mourning), and how it ends up exposing the family’s deepest insecurities.
A subtle satire about all those middle-class families where the death of the head of the family leads to a change in the dynamics between its members,“RPKT” is a family drama that doesn’t disappoint. The story opens with music teacher and Bhargava family’s patriarch Ram Prasad’s (Naseeruddin Shah) death bringing his large family back to their old ancestral bungalow in Lucknow, where his wife Savitri (Supriya Pathak) now lives alone, for 13 days to perform rituals.
The arrival of his six children, their spouses, their children and various other relatives adds to the chaos that usually takes place after the head of a family passes. What’s more, old contentions are brought into the limelight and the family struggles to make it through the 13 days of mourning in peace and harmony. During this period, they indulge in discussions, harmless jibes, casual conversations, arguments and some epiphanies. Secrets are unearthed and things that were never spoken of are finally said.
The key clashes, of course, lie with Ram Prasad’s children, especially the brothers – Gajraj aka Gajju (Manoj Pahwa), Manoj (Ninad Kamat), Pankaj (Vinay Pathak), and Nishant aka Nitu (Parambrata Chatterjee). They struggle with managing their family responsibilities, since they are married and have their own kids. And the topic of conversation inevitably veers towards how to take care of their ‘amma’, now that their father has passed away. To exacerbate the situation, it is revealed that Ramprasad owes the banks a huge debt and now his children must bear the brunt of paying it back. During this process, their interpersonal dynamics, politics, and insecurities take up the limelight that should’ve been reserved for the dead, thereby leading to a fascinating and heartbreaking analysis of traditional family values.
Pahwa manages to give a realistic portrayal of familial relationships in an Indian setting. RKPT has a bunch of commentaries going on all at once, with each getting its moment in the sun. Let’s start with the most prominent one, which is the tehrvi. In the movie, amma hopes that the family is going to come together during a time of such great distress. Instead, she sees that most of them hardly care that someone has died. They are either worried about their personal problems or about the loan that’s dangling over their head. Although the home is filled with people, there’s little to no warmth. There are brilliantly edited scenes to show what the children have become from amma’s perspective and some exquisitely written scenes to show what Ramprasad and amma meant to the children and vice versa, and why they are the way they are.
Then there’s the commentary on emotional independence. Ramprasad and amma have six children. Now, of course, after Ramprasad’s death, a discourse starts on who’s going to take amma in and how they’re going to pay off the loan that Ramprasad had taken in order to lend money to the aforementioned family members, barring the youngest, Nishant. I was worried that this was going to go into “Baghban” territory and Pahwa was going to arrive at the conclusion that children should take care of their parents no matter what. Thankfully, she doesn’t. She lands on this very grey area where she shows that the parents have faltered heavily and so have the children and she accepts that after a certain age, these differences are bearable from a distance only.
Thirdly, there’s the juxtaposition of Rahul and Nishant’s characters. Initially, I found Rahul’s role to be very distracting and detrimental to the overall tone and progression of the film. He is shown doing his duty of helping out the elders, doing the heavy lifting, and taking care of the kids in the family, and loitering around the household. But he’s weirdly detached from the whole ordeal as he’s seen cracking jokes about what people ask when they attend funerals or is trying to woo the neighbor’s daughter.
And things reach a boiling point when he, for the lack of a better word and to not spoil the movie, crosses the proverbial line while misjudging his equation with chachi Seema (Konkona Sen Sharma). However, on further reflection, the realization dawned that Rahul exemplifies how regression is passed down the generations and that he is the antithesis of Nishant, who represents how regression that is being passed down can be rejected with simple acts of protest – internal or external.
Pahwa, along with her talented cast and crew have absolutely knocked it out of the park and essentially created one of the most important movies in India’s cinematic history with its commentary on emotional independence. And I hope that this becomes the template for family films where we don’t paint the families on and off-screen in black or white and really go into the grey areas. Pahwa, uses the geography of the house so well too. The opening and closing shots are very powerful. The way she shows how patriarchal norms are established by men and re-established by women is so subtle and yet potent.
The acting is top-notch. I don’t think I have a favorite. They all are equally brilliant. The cast makes the movie real with their fine performances. Manoj Pahwa, as the oldest in the kin, brings in some laughs. Vinay Pathak and Ninad Kamat help in pushing the narrative forward in their own ways. Parambrata Chattopadhyay stands out as the youngest and most responsible brother. His strained relationship with his on-screen spouse, Konkana Sen Sharma, is well portrayed. Prasad’s grandchildren, especially Rahul, played by Vikrant Massey, and the romantic angle with a neighborhood girl adds some much-needed humor to the intense drama.
While Pahwa’s attempt at direction is laudable, it’s the writing that falters at many places. Several jokes fall flat but there are instances where subtle humor makes you giggle, however short-lived that giggle maybe. RPKT is a film that you’ll find relatable. It gets you emotional without getting too intense. While the sons look more natural in their scenes together, the daughters-in-law enjoy their kitchen politics triggering some light-hearted laughs. The camaraderie among the four brothers is palpable as they sit on the rooftop, drinking all night and opening up to each other like never before.
A special mention to Supriya Pathak, who, without too many dialogues, packs a strong performance with just her expressions. There are many characters in the film, yet Pathak makes her presence felt within her limited screen time. The beauty of the scenes is how they’ve been conceptualized. For instance, each time a new guest, relative or a neighbor arrives to offer condolences, ‘amma’ narrates the tragic tale of the night of her husband’s death, like a broken record, saying the same words and maintaining the same flow. Even her expressions don’t change. The story moves at a decent pace, though, at close to two hours, it seems slightly stretched especially in the second half. Sagar Desai’s compositions and Neeraj Pandey’s lyrics, blend with the situations in the story and add meaning.
I won’t call RPKT a highly entertaining film, but it’s a slice-of-life relatable family drama full of warmth that you can enjoy once for its tale of ‘comedy in tragedy’.“Ramprasad ki Tehrvi” is streaming on Netflix.