Unless it’s because I missed the beginning, it’s hard to tell exactly how these four lifetime buddies must’ve got together, in the first place
A still from the film
Dir: Sooraj Barjatya
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Anupam Kher, Boman Irani
Impossible to find a fonder relationship than a group of guy/girl friends, who’ve loved, lived, loathed together, forever. Such a gang will surely become more gender-neutral, over time/generations. This film is about one such male bunch of senior citizens, obviously inseparable at old age.
Unless it’s because I missed the beginning, it’s hard to tell exactly how these four lifetime buddies must’ve got together, in the first place. Two of them are dukandaars (relatively small-time shopkeepers) from Old Delhi — played by Anupam Kher, 67, and Boman Irani, 62; both of them expectedly competent on screen.
Of the rest, one (Amitabh Bachchan, 80) is a multiple-Mercedes owning, bestselling author of English non-fiction, if you may; the other, a retired, top-level bureaucrat (Danny Denzongpa, 74).
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It’s immaterial, though, how friends first meet — school/college, workplace, public place, who cares. What matters is how well they vibe with each other still.
Also, what’s inevitable about old buddies — in both senses of the term — is how easily they regress into the exact age they know each other from. As do the four men, over the hill here — but simultaneously leching at women in a swimming pool. It’s because you’re aware of this background, that these fellows don’t come across as ‘tharki buddhas’ (horny geriatrics).
Which is also to let you know this isn’t a film about old folks partying off-site, like Shaukeen (1981), or indeed its similarly titled, 2014 remake. Neither is this a movie on the general plight of retired life — as we saw, most recently, with Rishi Kapoor’s farewell movie, Sharmaji Namkeen (2022).
And that gives you a sense that a Hindi film centred on male retirees isn’t in itself a novelty. In fact the biggest Bollywood production with such an Expendables-like ensemble cast might well be the one that also starred Denzongpa, among a gang of old men, back in 1998 (China Gate). Denzongpa looks just as fit/young 24 years hence! Touchwood.
Only that he practically makes a “special appearance” in this pic — his character passes away, quite early on, leaving behind for his friends, a mission, quite different from China Gate, to accomplish.
It’s to trek up to the Mount Everest base-camp in Nepal — a Himalayan task, no doubt. This could involve some comedy, if you like. The death of a best friend is, anyway, a rather under-acknowledged tragedy, among all possible tragedies.
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To be fair, the film doesn’t slip too far into either territory — of drawing out too many laughs, or expecting audiences to lose themselves in the emotions, sentiment, rhetoric alone. Now, depending on the kinda big-screen viewer you are, this could be a net positive or negative. I’m a bit of a sucker for comedy.
Everything seems quite uniquely lowkey, in fact; even lacking in engagement/energy sometimes. This is but essential to highlight, because Uunchai is directed by Sooraj Barjatya, 58, who, along with his star protégé, Salman Khan, 56, reintroduced to Bollywood the loud ‘joint family film’ in the early 1990s.
Meaning, a movie that extends the definition of intimate family to a vast network of close and distant relatives, associates, neighbours, down to the pet dog and the Man/Woman Friday, every day. Respect here is merely earned through vintage.
Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hain Koun! (1994, HAHK) miraculously brought ‘family audiences’ back into Indian theatres. The director himself, it can be argued, has mostly struggled to rediscover his movie-mojo since.
Frankly, after that level of HAHK success, anybody would. His last outing, also starring Khan, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015), was in particular an abomination for a period set-piece in cardboard.
Uunchai is entirely an outdoor film — with the cameras panning across live locations in the North, following all the way up, where snow-capped mountains merge with the open sky. But where Barjatya’s really redefined himself is by suggesting how, in reality, friends are family!
This is his most contemporary film. Also one that remains truest to its age-category — something that we classify in movies as merely fit for children or adults. This is a pic I’ll instantly recommend to my parents, foremost.
At the moral centre is Bachchan, of course, making the trekking mission, therefore the movie, possible. Watching this octogenarian Everest among actors on screen again, you realise this is Bachchan’s fifth major theatrical release (Jhund, Runway 34, BrahmÄstra, Goodbye) in 2022 alone. And we catch him every evening on television (KBC, and practically every other commercial).
In terms of the part itself — in certain portions, totally shorn of makeup/artifice, revealing a physically vulnerable, helpless side — Bachchan pulls off such a remarkably understated version of himself, that you can still tell this role apart from hundreds you’ve seen before, by others, or Bachchan himself!
There is a quiet, gentle meditation on mortality here — almost an extension, as a theme, from Goodbye, where we last saw a similarly hushed Bachchan; only a month back. His character in the film, an author by profession, is hugely successful alright. But his writing, it appears, has been only for sales, rather than self-expression. Can’t say the same for this simple, mainstream picture.