Yesterday was the second time in my life I cried at the movies (the first was when I watched On Golden Pond at the Chanakya Cinema in Delhi, at the age of 22). Despite some obvious flaws, ‘Smile, Please’ had the honor of squeezing the saline out of my eyes, which are usually unfazed by Bollywood’s tear-jerking tricks and sentimental shenanigans.
Smile Please tackles the heavy, hard subject of dementia (in this case, the rare early onset kind); however, like any Bollywood movie worth its salt, it multitasks heavily on the emotional front. We get a variety of engaging sub-plots stirred into the mix including family dynamics, the tradeoff between a career and family for ambitious Indian women, and the evolving relationship between divorced parents as they share parenting.
To director Vikram Phadnis’ credit, these themes add to the rich background tapestry of the movie, without overshadowing the overarching theme of dementia in a young woman.
Dementia could easily be crowned the Queen of The Most Horrible Diseases that Afflict Mankind. It robs individuals of their memories, and of everything that makes them human and connects them to other human beings. Apart from memories, basic learned associations, personality traits and the core of what makes up an individual’s identity, slowly dissolves into the merciless acid of this disease, which leaves a functioning shell of a person who may not even remember their own name.
Smile Please is a spin off from the accomplished 2014 movie, Still Alice, where Juliane Moore stars as a 50-year-old linguistics professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s (a form of dementia). Still Alice depicts the sudden devastation in Alice’s life as the person she has been is stripped away, and the movie gives a sensitive portrayal of how the disease sucks her entire family into its black hole.
In Smile Please we see a woman at the height of her career. Nandini Joshi (played by Mukta Barve), is shown conducting a high fashion photo shoot in the opening scene. She’s the divorced mom of a 13-year-old girl, Nupur (Vedashree Mahajan) and lives with her elderly father in an affluent, old world, Bombay neighborhood.
Her daughter (whose custody was surprisingly awarded to Nandini’s ex-husband) hates Nandini, but comes to visit her grandfather. This backstory could have been a movie in itself; however, we, the viewers, come late to the relationship between Nandini and her ex-husband. What we see is an enlightened, 21st century dynamic between the couple, a mature and accommodative affection, where Nandini’s ex-husband (Prasad Oak) tries to persuade Nupur to give her mother a chance. Those layers of civility will be lifted later in the movie to reveal darker corners in their marriage.
We begin to get clues that all is not well with Nandini right from the start – she forgets small things and misses appointments and then, one day, forgets what she’s saying during an official presentation. This scene was a complete knock-off from Still Alice; in the Juliane Moore version, Alice forgets the next word when she is teaching a linguistics class. I felt the director could have shown more originality here.
When her tests are done by a doctor who is Nandini’s old college friend, results show that she’s well into the first stage of dementia. We see the family struggling to cope with this new reality as Nandini goes through some typical stages of shock, denial and gradual acceptance.
Here, the movie diverges from Still Alice, but does so in typical Bollywood fashion. Enter, the family’s guardian angel in the form of a young man, Viraj (Lalit Prabhakar), who is a house guest. He fills in the empathy holes the family has left and ends up being everyone’s selfless savior. Remember, Kal Ho Na Ho, and Shahrukh Khan’s guardian angel? Bollywood scriptwriters seem to find the sexy- heroic stranger- rescuing- the- hapless- family trope quite irresistible.
Viraj’s magical appearance seems contrived at first, but director Vikram Phadnis skillfully weaves the newcomer into the narrative, in a series of authentic scenes. He also brings out the compassion and the helpless agony of the family without making the film sit too heavily on the audience. The team of actors he picked are quite accomplished, and do a superb job of conveying the subtle horror and helplessness of the disease.
And, though the tears did flow, my rational brain felt mildly disappointed at the fact that the movie doesn’t get intimately into the changes in Nandini’s emotions, and her fear of the future, as she grapples with the disease. She seems curiously passive to her fate throughout, while there is more emphasis on the savior-hero and on family dynamics. We also don’t see the desperation of extremes in this movie, except for a scene where Nandini comes to a party for her daughter’s birthday in a bathrobe. In contrast, Still Alice had a powerful scene where the character plans her own suicide because she wants to die with dignity, on her own terms, not as a babbling, uncomprehending husk who is a burden to her family.
This is a movie which should be seen on a quiet evening with a glass of wine, when you are in a mood for the cathartic, melancholy sadness it will evoke. It brings out our very human mortality, as well as our stoic resilience in the face of heartless destiny, and deserves 3 stars.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents