Toronto: How personal can art get? Is there a line that splits what’s within the bounds of the unwritten rules of decency and what has crossed the line? Is it okay to use real-life adversity – one’s own or another’s -- to create a piece of work mostly for self-aggrandising purposes?
Do ends justify, or vilify, the means?
Many works of art lean on reality, are created to share a real-life experience, a story, an incident, a tragedy. Some do it honestly, with humility and skill, while others use a tragedy for personal gain and glory.
The best writers, directors, painters have done it for centuries, and when they have done it well, they’ve been eulogised. Other, lesser artists have tried it too, but have had to make up their lack of skill by going for the jugular, trying to incite a particular emotion and reaction.
“Tragedy porn” is easy to spot simply by figuring how it makes us, the audience, feel: Uncomfortably impaled by its insistence on showing all its wounds, or drawn to it because of its brilliance?
Director Shonali Bose’s The Sky is Pink, scheduled to have its world premiere at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival on September 13 in the Gala section, alongside several Oscar worthies from Hollywood, mines the real-life tragedy of a family to create a film which, at one level, tells a rather devastating yet life-affirming tale of coping with the impending death of a loved one, but at another raises troubling questions about creative license. That’s mainly because the film has a weak script and a director who puts the stars above the story.
The Sky is Pink, starring Priyanka Chopra, Farhan Akhtar and Zaira Wasim, is based on the life of the Chaudharys, Aditi and Niren, who lost two of their daughters to immune deficiency, or SCID, a rare genetic disorder in which the body doesn’t have the wherewithal to fight infections.
The film, which opens with a young girl’s melodic humming, tells its story in flashback through a voiceover, that of a teenage Aisha (Zaira Wasim). She is no more.
To let a child talk to us directly about her life and death is a crafty device. By doing so the film recruits us as the keepers of her story, of her time on earth. We become a part of the story.
Aisha begins by telling us about her parents’ sex life and suggesting that she may have had something to do with the fact that there's little to talk about there. That’s hip, modern and adorable. Aisha, in fact, is so cute that she has given her parents pet names — Daddy Niren is Panda (Farhan Akhtar), Mummy Aditi is Moose (Priyanka Chopra) and bada bhai is Giraffe (played by Rohit Saraf).
That this heart-wrenching true story is wrapped in such cuteness and so much star power makes the film both, palatable but also a tad sneaky.
The film’s plot is made up of moments of high emotions and, at times, sweet everydayness. It has a few scenes that hit you hard, but also moments that make you feel manipulated.
At one point The Sky is Pink stoops to show Niren cradling the body of his baby on the way to its burial. This reminded me of Karan Johar staging an elaborate let’s-all-howl-together scene in My Name Is Khan by laying a child’s dead body on a table, and then the shocked mother walking into the frame to grieve.
Melodrama is an indelible part of Indian commercial cinema. But when directors position themselves as mature, indie filmmakers, the duplicity must be called out.
Several films have, in the past, told deeply tragic tales of loss and love, of life and death, including the Rajesh Khanna-Amitabh Bachchan Anand which is poignant, brilliant and unforgettable.
Bose, who earlier made Amu and Margarita, With A Straw, is drawn to tales of loss and love. And while The Sky is Pink has the spirit of a chatty friend sharing a story about this incredible family they know, it’s also exploitative, filmy and starry-eyed.
It creates long, filmy segments to indulge its stars, giving them enough scenes for histrionics, often at the expense of the story. Thus, a lot of time gets spent on Aditi and Niren’s cute romance, some silly marital fights, and later dramatic moments like Aisha’s prognosis, crucial phone calls, a happy family trip…
Tiff’s website states that “with The Sky is Pink, Priyanka Chopra-Jonas brings together her personal passion and her megawatt stardom to power an inspiring, real-life tale with the emotional wallop of the best Bollywood has to offer.” That's marketing language.
Farhan Akhtar is good, and Priyanka Chopra is adequate. She often comes across as a star trying to act. Zaira Wasim is charming and her smile lingers.
The real emotional walloping in The Sky is Pink comes not from its stars, but when, at the end of the film, we get to see the family photo album of the real Chaudhurys, short clips of Aisha as a toddler, at a Ted Talk, laughing, and with an oxygen cylinder connected through a pipe to her nose.
These real, warm moments of a life lived to its fullest stay, while the film recedes, feeling less like art, more artifice....