'About Love': Film Review | Mumbai 2019

Courtesy of Mumbai Film Festival
A caustic comedy searches for love in an Indian family.

Director Archana Atul Phadke bases her first feature documentary on her own large Mumbai family.

Shot over a period of three years in her own home, Archana Atul Phadke’s amusing feature-length doc isn’t “all about love” but more modestly About Love, focusing on one extended family — her own — and making no pretense to finding that elusive emotion. Constant bickering and low-level tension characterize this closely knit crew. Laughter alternates with tears, a death and a wedding, and by the surprising end of the film, you feel you know the inner workings of two long-term marriages. The pic bowed in the Mumbai Film Festival’s select India Gold section and will be a crowd-pleaser at other festivals.

What ultimately emerges from this closer look is the difficult, second-fiddle role women are called on to play to their self-entitled, self-absorbed husbands who seem much less mentally and emotionally illuminated. That evaluation doesn’t diminish the obvious affection the filmmaker has for her father Atul and grandfather Madhave, but it does help define the limits of love in these long-term relationships. (Phadke’s parents have been married for 32 years and her grandparents for 68.)

One of the film’s strengths is the casual familiarity with which it is shot. Using a simple Handycam for both image and sound, Phadke moves around their big apartment in a comfy old area of south Mumbai, interacting with her family in the most natural way possible. She and her sister Sararika, both around 30, show no desire to get married and move out. “What would I achieve with marriage?” they ask. "I don't want to become like Mom." Their brother Rohan, though, is getting wed to his Sikh girlfriend, but that relationship is too new to be explored.

Instead, the focus shifts between Phadke’s parents Atul and Maneesha, who seem to own a jewelry store (never seen) and Atul’s own aged parents. Crabby old Madhave, who is suffering from health issues, still poses as the self-styled family patriarch and bosses his frail, long-suffering wife Neela around. He torments her with addled questions about missing money, and they argue in a hair-raising exchange of insults and obscenities that always get a laugh.

Atul, a big man with a short temper, feuds with his neighbors over a parking space and berates his wife over mismanaging the “accounts.” In reality, Maneesha is a gifted unpublished writer with a lot going on upstairs. She sees Atul’s shortcomings perfectly, and they frequently drive her to tears or hysterical laughter; but in another moment, she says she plans to stay with him for another 20 years. A silly dispute over the wrong size of some file folders illustrates their madcap relationship, which must be especially hard on an introspective woman like Maneesha. At one point, she says that when the family is out, she luxuriates in just having 15 minutes of time for herself, and you can sympathize.

But the real tyrant — as far as the family allows — is old Madhave, a wonderful character that the camera dotes on. With his big, wide-open eyes and shock of white hair, he rants over trifles, driving Neela to distraction. It’s a hoot to watch this unconscious comedian when he describes the two “old ghosts” he can see at night sitting on the wardrobe, staring at him.

Much of About Love takes place in bedrooms, in bed and in other intimate situations. In such long-term relationships, more telling than the constant verbal quarreling are little gestures that show the underlying love family members have for each other. It’s a small, unpretentious film about ordinary people, but Phadke achieves a nice balance, based on her respect for each family member as a person. Her critical observations emerge naturally, without overt editorializing.
 
Production companies: Tesla’s Pigeon, Storyteller Inc.
Cast: Atul Phadke, Maneesha Phadke, Madhave Phadke, Neela Phadke, Rohan Phadke, Sararika Phadke, Lali Phadke, Sushila Bai, Gurbani Bagga

Director: Archana Atul Phadke
Screenwriters-producers-editors: Archana Atul Phadke, Abhay Kumar  
Director of photography: Archana Atul Phadke
Venue: Mumbai Film Festival (India Gold)

90 minutes