In Seema Pahwa’s directorial debut, Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, a family assembles for the last rites of its patriarch. The central tragedy is wrapped up in one scene: Ramprasad (Naseeruddin Shah), an aging music store owner in Lucknow, collapses over his out-of-tune piano and dies. As his widow (Supriya Pathak) thrusts his unresponsive body, the camera does an unsentimental pull-back. In a film full of selfish characters, even the camera knows what it needs.
The next morning, sons and daughters start pulling in. Instantly, there’s an argument about who came first — and by what transport. Inside the house, there’s gossip about Nitu (Parambrata Chatterjee), the youngest son, and his fraying relationship with his wife. The grandkids are all sleepy-eyed and aloof, bored in a house overflowing with elders. They make a game of their grandmother repeating herself over and over again — a knowing detail out of anyone’s childhood.
These early scenes indicate the acerbic turn the film is about to take. The casual ribbing is soon replaced by deep-seated grunts. The brothers — played by Manoj Pawha, Ninad Kamat, Vinay Pathak and Parambrata — give voice to old resentments. Grief, with a little aid from alcohol, loosens their tongues. Downstairs, the sisters-in-law form a snickering trio; they descend on Seema (Konkona Sen Sharma), Nitu’s wife, when she arrives from Mumbai. It all comes to a head when a financial trouble presents itself, revealing all members at their grasping worst.
There’s a charming fluency to Seema Pahwa’s direction. Though almost entirely set indoors, the film doesn’t feel cramped: the same rooftop, for instance, is used for three visually distinct scenes. Cinematographer Sudip Sengupta is always toying with some new angle or vantage point. After Nitu and Seema quarrel one night, the couple departs to separate rooms. It’s a fine way to emphasize the verticality of the house while also introducing a fresh conflict.
As the family mourns over thirteen days, the film fills us in on their past. There are standard flashbacks of happier times (Parambrata filling in as a younger Ramprasad is both poignant and clever). Yet the best revelations are made through dialogue. Over idle chatter, we learn everything about the deceased patriarch: how he was obsessed with his music and passion, how he picked out sarees for his daughters-in-law, how he liked his ‘gud wali chai’. Pouring out as memories, these nuggets present a full picture of a man, and I found myself trusting them more than the staid flashbacks. “It brings out his true personality,” someone comments on Ramprasad’s picture (we never know that for sure, but the words ring true.)
Supriya Pathak anchors the film with her rhythmic performance. Her genial voice, so identifiable from other movies, recedes to a faint whisper here. From time to time, characters huddle around her, and there’s a poise and gravity to these scenes that’s absent elsewhere. It’s tied off neatly near the end, when even the most adrift character slowly pivots back to her.
As the mourners fill out on the last day, the emptiness of the house is gradually restored. It will remind viewers of Gulabo Sitabo, Shoojit Sircar’s film about another decrepit mansion in Lucknow. The characters in Gulabo Sitabo were squatting tenants, yet their departure was tinged with loss. In Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, it’s a family drifting apart, and they all look flushed with relief.
Film: Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi
Cast: Supriya Pathak, Naseeruddin Shah, Manoj Pahwa, Ninad Kamat, Vinay Pathak, Vikrant Massey, Konkona Sen Sharma
Director: Seema Pahwa