For those who like head-on, immersive emotional experiences at the movies, The Sky Is Pink may be a direct hit. It makes a lot more demands on the heartstrings than the first film from writer-director Shonali Bose, her moving but more moderate 2014 Netpac-winner, Margarita With a Straw, about a sexually alive girl with disabilities. Here Bose and Nilesh Maniyar’s screenplay is closely based on the true story of Aisha Chaudhary, a teenager with pulmonary fibrosis whose loving parents dedicated their lives to helping her survive; in fact, the end credits roll over painfully cheery photos of the Chaudhary family.
Though Bose sidesteps melodrama, she settles for sentimentality in a long-winded tale that focuses not on the sick girl but on her parents, played in warm rom-com fashion by Bollywood stars Priyanka Chopra Jonas (Mary Kom) and Farhan Akhtar. This Hindi-language celebration of family solidarity and self-sacrifice in times of trouble earmark it for Indian audiences in and outside India, where Chopra Jonas and Akhtar are major theatrical draws. It bowed at a Gala screening in Toronto before an early October release in India.
The long story is coyly narrated by Aisha, who is clear from the start that she’s speaking from beyond the grave, but “it’s no big deal.” There’s no self-pity in her voice as she affectionately tells her life story and interprets her family’s feelings and motives. Rather irritatingly, she insists on calling her mother, Aditi (high-spirited, headstrong Chopra Jonas), “Moose” and her father, Niren (a hyper-responsible Farhan Akhtar), “Panda.” The two have made a mixed-caste love marriage that, though frowned upon by society, binds them closely together.
As a young married couple living with his parents on a scenic Delhi rooftop (cue a brief song and dance), they have already had one son, Ishaan, and have lost a daughter soon after birth due to a rare autoimmune disorder. When Aditi discovers she’s pregnant again, Niren wants her to have an abortion, but because she’s converted to Christianity after a “mystical experience,” she insists on bringing the baby to term. Little Aisha turns out to have the same medical condition as her sister, with the same sad prognosis. Her only chance is to undergo expensive treatment in London that the family can’t afford. (Strangely, the English doctor at the London children’s hospital speaks to them in fluent Hindi.)
His voice breaking, Niren makes an appeal on London’s Sunrise Radio, servicing the Indian community. They need 120,000 pounds for a bone marrow transplant to save Aisha’s life, and the response is overwhelming. The baby is saved — but her condition is so delicate she can’t leave London for 10 years. She has also had chemotherapy treatments which, they are warned, could have consequences in the future.
We are only at the beginning of Aisha’s saga when the story goes off on a tangent to follow Niren and Aditi’s marriage. To save his job and look after Ishaan, Niren reluctantly returns to Delhi, leaving Aditi and Aisha in London. Their long-distance marriage unfolds in public phone booths (it’s the 1980s) and survives a marital crises. There is an undertold quality to this part of the film, with both actors softening the edges of the difficult situation with their charm.
Finally Niren, who has done remarkably well off screen in the restaurant business, gets transferred to London as a big manager. The family’s economic rise is swift, and when they return to Delhi with teenage Aisha (Zaira Wasim), they move into a big new house with a swimming pool. The overprotective Aditi worries about every germ her daughter encounters and schemes to make her happy, while Aisha fights for her freedom to be a normal teenager looking for love. Then she has a health setback that sends the film into a painful finale that slowly unfolds. In a misty-eyed epilogue, Niren shows family videos of happier times.
The title comes from an episode at Ishaan’s school, when he is mocked for coloring the sky pink in a drawing. “You can color the sky any color you want,” says Chopra fiercely, expressing her family’s theory of life. Sporting a casual ponytail as a younger woman and a short wig in later years, she’s magnetic on screen even as an anxious mother. Akhtar has the down-to-earth appeal of the perfect husband who, it is said, has “unconditional love” for his wife. Taken together, they’re too good to be true.
While a couple of playful song and dance sequences wink at Bollywood, the constant use of cheerful pop and country music to take the maudlin edge off is enervating. Five directors of photography are credited, perhaps accounting for the film’s even lighting look.
Production companies: RSVP, Roy Kapur Films, Ivanhoe Pictures, Purple Pebble Pictures
Cast: Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Farhan Akhtar, Zaira Wasim, Rohit Saraf
Director: Shonali Bose
Screenwriters: Shonali Bose, Nilesh Maniyar
Producers: Ronnie Screwvala, Siddharth Roy Kapur, John Penotti
Executive producers: Nilesh Maniyar, Deepak Gawade
Directors of photography: Kartik Vijay, Nick Cooke, Andrew Litt, Andre Menezes, Ravi Varman
Production designer: Aradhana Seth
Editor: Manas Mittal
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
World sales: RSVP
In Hindi, 142 minutes