The Weekly Dose: How do you solve a problem like Aisha?
The Sky is Pink is a film that turns chronology over on its head; from the get-go, we know Aisha will die young. She narrates the film from beyond the grave with an insouciant irreverence that steers clear of tear-jerking tropes, reminding us that before she lost her life, she had a life.
When last I saw him, V was less than a year old. We met in the paediatric ICU of my alma mater, where he had spent almost three-fourths of his life. I can no longer remember why he was admitted there or why he had such a prolonged stay; all I recall is that his condition was complicated enough to involve more departments of the hospital than he had fingers on his lively little hands.
I remember V, but my memory of his parents is hazy. They came from a Tier-II city and had suspended their lives since the birth of their son, spending months on end in Mumbai for his treatment. I can just about conjure up the father’s hearty smile, and the mother’s serene demeanour. And no more.
The Sky is Pink made me think of V’s parents, not V. Because the film is about the parents of a child born with a disease; not the child, nor the disease.
Aditi (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and Niren Chaudhary (Farhan Akhtar) are parents to a young son when she discovers she is pregnant again. Hindi films which involve medical conditions tend to include awkwardly written dialogues that dumb the science down for the audience; in the opening scene of The Sky is Pink, Niren laments the failure of the rhythm method of contraception and Aditi points out that while he can have just poha for breakfast, she has to pop The Pill. Keep up with the biology or be left behind; the film is effective either way.
When little Aisha is born, celebrations at the Chaudhary household are muted; they’ve already lost a daughter to a rare genetic disorder, and their worst fears come true when they are told that history has repeated itself with Aisha - she is born with almost no immune system. This is a film that turns chronology over on its head; from the get-go, we know Aisha will die young. She narrates the film from beyond the grave with an insouciant irreverence that steers clear of tear-jerking tropes, reminding us that before she lost her life, she had a life.
Instead of ‘why God why’ or ‘why me’ ululations, the screenwriters employ commendable restraint in staging scenes familiar to any family grappling with an uncommon chronic illness in the 90s. The Chaudharys struggle to scrabble together the money to fly to London for a second opinion, and in an era before crowdfunding websites, make an appeal for financial help from that city’s Indian community - over the radio.
Like an illness, the story takes its time to develop, and is marked by its own aches and pains: of having to rely on a friend’s goodwill and camping in her living room in a strange city, of greeting a spouse after a long separation by spraying his suitcase with disinfectant, of not being able to say a tentative goodbye to one’s husband in time, before he is wheeled into an operation theatre for a bone marrow transplant because their infant daughter - the recipient - is in another wing of the sprawling hospital.
The transplant is successful - somewhat. Little Aisha’s immune system will take years to match up to a normal person’s. What the Chaudharys had hoped would be the end of their ordeal is the beginning of a lifetime of second-thoughts and precautions, lived outside hospitals, but in their home.
Somehow, Niren becomes stupendously successful and moves his family to a Chhatarpur farmhouse; while this may be difficult to believe, remember that The Sky Is Pink is a biopic, and the Chaudharys are real people. Fast-forward to a teenage Aisha (Zaira Wasim) who has all the angst of her age group and no memory of her difficult formative years, raised by parents who can’t forget them.
Aditi wears two masks: one face is constantly on guard against the slightest threat of infection, reprimanding the kitchen help for not wearing gloves while chopping veggies and for not washing utensils with boiled water, while the other tries to give her daughter as normal a life as possible.
At this point, the writer of a run-of-the-mill movie would decide that the Chaudharys have suffered enough, and introduce a romantic interest for Aisha. Instead, the latter collapses out of the blue, and doctors find that the drugs administered alongside her childhood transplant have damaged her lungs, irreversibly and incurably. Her days are numbered.
Disavowing stereotypes, The Sky is Pink steers clear of emotional breakdown, while Aisha comes into her own. For someone who is sick of hospitals, is the prospect of going back to a hospital to alleviate her sickness, at all appealing? Will she listen to medical advice and avail of a lung transplant that can potentially prolong the life of Project Aisha, or does she assert her right to decide what’s best for herself? Her dilemma is beautifully encapsulated in Gulzar’s lyrics addressed to Zindagi:
‘Jeene ke liye tu roz kharchi deti hai
Kitne saans lene hain, voh gin bhi leti hai
Sukoon bhi to de kabhi, daraaye rakhti hai
Ummeed ke chiraag bhi jalaaye rakhti hai’.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas recasts the mould of ‘Indian mother’ roles by portraying Aditi as both belligerent and tender, cautious and carefree. She isn’t just swaddling her child in blankets and spooning soup into her crumbling body. In my favourite scene, some fine and sensitive camerawork portends to the viewer that Aisha is going to die that day; Aditi senses this, and without dropping a beat, assembles her family, arranges for Aisha’s book of epiphanies to be published a day early and manages to place the first copy in her frail hands.
Most films would end here; this one goes on to reveal how Aisha’s death strained the Chaudharys’ marriage. What should they do with their daughter’s things? After a lifetime of caring for Aisha, what is Aditi to do with herself? How do people deal with grief, and what happens when they deal with it in diametrically different manners?
V lives, Aisha didn’t. The Sky Is Pink in the world of Aisha’s brother - who had to make many sacrifices for his sister’s health - but the movie doesn’t leave you feeling blue. Watch this fine account of survival, of the space between life and death, and of life after death for those who survive.