The Coffin Maker: Goa Film Bazaar Review

Shree Narayan Studios
"The Coffin Maker"
A rambling, stagey but often engaging folk tale builds to a climax with genuine feeling.

Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak star in a colorful tale in which an old man plays chess with Death.

A whiff of magical realism pervades The Coffin Maker, a sweet tale about an old grump who discovers he only has a month to live, told against the tropical backdrop of Goa, India. Its greatest merit lies in its conviction, which becomes the audience's conviction, that life is worth savoring to the fullest and love is its most important value. Filmed in bright colors with lilting music and bold, stagey characters, it has a homey simplicity that can feel overstated and exasperating at times, yet in several scenes this folk tale straps on wings and soars emotionally.

It was one of two Indian films in competition at the recent International Film Festival of India and is about to embark on a festival run, where it should find appreciation. For English-speaking audiences, a plus is that all the dialogue is in the amusing English patois spoken by the locals, intensifying a relaxed Caribbean feeling.

In her first feature, ad filmmaker Veena Bakshi lends a woman's understanding to the strained relationship of an embittered couple married for many years. Worn-out old-timer Anton Gomes (played by celebrated stage and film actor Naseeruddin Shah) hates his role as the village coffin maker and won't let his son into the business. To make matters worse, his shrewish wife Isabella (Ratna Pathak Shah) bitingly berates him from morning till night. Despite their paradisiacal surroundings, they make each other's life hell. Their battles play out like theater on the charming but claustrophobic stage of their rambling wooden house, just in front of the coffin shop.

There, to escape Isabella, Anton spends his days drinking and playing chess with himself. Until one day, a mysterious stranger (Randeep Hooda) in a business suit turns up to play with him. You don't need to be Ingmar Bergman to guess the suave young fellow with a toothy grin and a habit of dematerializing is Death himself, partly because he says so. Hooda, who was discovered in Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding and who went on to play Sunny Leone's hot boyfriend in Jism 2, is an odd yet winning casting choice; his imperturbable, plastic-looking features do have something spooky about them. Careful to distinguish himself from the Devil, he turns out to be the nicest character in the film and turns Anton's miserable existence around when he announces he has just 31 days to live. "Death is not the end of life, it's the meaning of life" he says, making Anton count his blessings.

In the main role, Shah falls short of his most memorable work (along with a multitude of Indian films, he played Capt. Nemo in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). But even on this quieter note, he skillfully uses his riveting screen presence to make an exhilarating transition from disgruntled misanthrope to a man who embraces life. This isn't the first time he has shared billing with Ratna Pathak, his real-life wife, but here they project solid coupledom, ranging from the most hurtful bickering to deeply believable love that resists age.

Among the supporting cast of colorful but stereotyped village folk, Amit Sial stands out as the tragi-comic town wastrel and Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal is touching in the role of an anxious widow.

Much of the film’s exotic mood is created by the delicate strings of Hindi composing duo Bapi–Tutul's musical score.

Venue: Goa Film Bazaar, Nov. 22, 2013.

Production company:
Shree Narayan Studios
Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Randeep Hooda, Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, Anand Tiwari, Benjamin Gilani, Denzil Smith, Yadu Sankalia, Amit Sial, Shilpa Shukla                            

Director: Veena Bakshi
Veena Bakshi
Producers: Bharat Vijan, Ambika Vijan
Executive producer:
 Dilip Borkar
Director of photography: Mahesh Aney
Production designer:
Gautam Sen
Costumes: Fabeha Khan

Editor: Nipun Gupta
Bapi – Tutul
No rating, 123 minutes.