Movies and shows, old and new, have helped us to live vicariously through them. They have allowed us to travel far and wide at a time borders are shut and people are restricted to homes. In our new column What's In A Setting, we explore the inseparable association of a story with its setting, how the location complements the narrative, and how these cultural windows to the world have helped broaden our imagination.
Over a year ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic was yet to take complete hold over nearly every aspect of our lives, my home " the humble abode of six outrageously loud people " was in the habit of witnessing a steady stream of activity all day long, abuzz with chatter and the arrival and departure of dozens of visitors.
On days like these, multiple scenes would play out in the house at the same time in controlled chaos. I remember one such morning when an electrician called in to fix a broken connection yelled instructions to no one in particular, two painters splashed colour on the walls of the drawing room, vegetables and gravy were stirred on the gas range, a group of friends of one of the house's youngest residents cloistered on the veranda sipping on coffee that was handed out the kitchen window, and the cat mewled at the front door demanding her saucer of milk.
All around, loud voices merged into one another, creating a din as a dozen people " twice the population of the house's occupants " talked simultaneously about just as many topics, ranging from treks and road trips to wiring and plastering to ingredients and recipes. Oh, the noise!
On that day, just as I had many times before, I struggled to find a quiet spot to write in solitude, an honest challenge for many who live in a household with people who like to, well... talk.
But unsurprisingly, it is this flurry, bustle, and activity that I find myself longing for the most in the post COVID-19 world, in which an eerie quiet announces our collective loneliness, and the lack of human company is evident in the monotony of a socially distanced routine.
In the first few months after the coronavirus hit, the generally open and breezy vibes that our home usually radiates were replaced by heaviness and anxiety as we watched the country come to grips with this crisis. Despite being in a house full of chatty people, we found ourselves isolated in our minds, as each one tried to cope with the pandemic and its collateral damage in their own distinct way.
On such particularly dismal days, I found myself re-watching or at least enacting the punchlines (which I still do) out of the 2009 Marathi comedy Ek Daav Dhobi Pachhad (loosely translated as knocked out in one punch). Directed by Satish Rajwade, this ensemble movie, that has quite a cult following, unfolds over the course of one day, in one bungalow and reaffirms my belief that a house is more than just brick and mortar; rather a powerful setting where countless stories are unfolding all at once.
The film revolves around the relatively simple story of Dada Dandge (Ashok Saraf), a big-time thug in the small village of Bhongalpoor, who decides to leave behind a life of crime to win back his long-lost love, Hema (Kishori Shahane). But inextricably linked to Dada's household are the lives of multiple characters, each of whose dilemmas have become a 'jeevan maranacha prashna' or a matter of life and death.
What is fascinating and yet hardly alarming for me is the unravelling of these smaller narratives in the movie against the backdrop of Dada's larger predicament. Through the course of one day in his house, his unmarried daughter feigns a pregnancy, a strange girl arrives and urges him to pretend that she is his child, his young, clever accountant professes his love for the goon's daughter (the fake one) and asks her hand in marriage, his house help hands in her notice, and a rival thug and an aspiring private detective separately spy from a safe distance on all the visitors going inside the house.
As Dada tries to come to grips with the crashing domesticities of his household, he also finds time to focus on his daily Marathi lesson with Professor Parkhadkar (Subodh Bhave) to gentrify his language and impress Hema.
Now, after having watched the film numerous times during 2020 alone, not to mention the sporadic viewing of a select few comedy scenes over the course of the last decade, the map of the house has slowly sewn itself together in my imagination: right from the abhyasika (study) where Dada desperately tries to learn his Marathi idioms to the library where he shouts at his designer, out into the drawing room in which he asks his accountant to return the money he has stolen from Dada, up the spiral staircase leading to his daughter Sulakshana's (Mukta Barve) room and down the flight of stairs to a hidden back room where the strange girl stays hidden on Dada's instructions.
During the lockdown, I found myself returning to this house of comedy and the story it told because despite all of us being under one roof for most of our time, my own home, instead of functioning like a smooth, well-oiled machine, was just as chaotic and confusing as before.
Still, there was a difference, and it was subtle. Underlying the trifles of spilled milk or lies about deadlines to avoid running errands was an intense anxiety that rose every day with the rising number of cases.
This disquieting turn of events rendered us angsty, made us bicker amongst ourselves, and situations that we once found funny now made us irritable. Through it all, the house stood as it were, becoming a sanctuary that sheltered our family.
During those months, I enjoyed the comedy of this 'other' house, which connected multiple strands together and fostered a feeling of continuity in the stories of all the characters who weave a complex, often misguided web of lies and confusion around themselves.
The house stood stoic and unfazed recording the antics of all who stepped in and out of its boundaries, and acted as the catalyst that pushed the story forward. Would the two similar bags, one filled with black money and jewels, the other with the house help's clothes, have exchanged themselves had they both not been in the same house? Had not the accountant and the Marathi professor met each other in the house, would the former ever be able to dig himself out of the deep mess he was in? If it weren't for being grounded in her room watching movies, would Sulakshana have thought of making up a pregnancy that in effect put the entire chain of events in motion?
Because a home bustling with visitors and people is continually observing and nurturing its inhabitants. A house has seen it all: births and deaths, marriages and break-ups, moments of celebration and grandeur, and the more sobering realities of life. It is in this setting that a lot of drama unfolds, at once a sanctuary and a trap, a place where the suspense builds and resolves itself, and after numerous confusing incidences and moments of chaos, it is here that the stories of its residents reach their own destined endings.
Read more from the What's in a Setting series here.