In just about every conceivable way, debutant Veena Bakshi's The Coffin Maker, is a Naseeruddin Shah movie that played the other day in the International Film Festival of India, now winding to its end.
As one writer aptly said, Shah rises like a phoenix from the ashes of his recent films that almost ruined his reputation as one of the best actors India has ever known. The Dirty Picture, 7 Khoon Maaf and That Girl in Yellow Boots were eminently forgettable, more so because they came after a string of remarkably great performances.
Even in a rank commercial venture like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, the five-minute cameo of Shah with Farhan Akhtar was absolutely elevating.
In The Coffin Maker, Shah gives a riveting performance as a carpenter (not a coffin maker, as he repeats in the course of the movie, which he is forced to build for bad times have pushed him into this), who after years of dreary existence with just his bottle of feni and battles on the chessboard, begins to live.
Naseeruddin Shah in a still from The Coffin Maker
And why this transformation? Death comes knocking in the form of an impeccably black-suited Randeep Hooda, who gives Shah a month to live a life he had forgotten to. Shah's Anton Gomes takes this as a challenge, perks up and even takes his wife of long years, Isabella (played to perfection by Shah's real wife, Ratna Shah Pathak) on a dinner date.
There is this little scene enacted on a street in Goa - where The Coffin Maker was shot in its entirety - where the long-quarrelling couple even waltz. This is the only time she is in a bright red dress, the colour probably an indication of the impending death.
Along with their son Joseph (Anand Tiwari), the couple otherwise lead a humdrum life. It is rarely punctuated by Anton's visit to the village, where a delightful conglomeration of men and women - like the baker, the butcher and the grave digger - add a dash of Goan ambiance with its joys and sorrows, its love stories and its trials. Watching all this, and even participating in these is Hooda's death, and he even relishes a Goan delicacy, bun maska.
Bakshi infuses a new meaning into the existence of her tragic protagonist, bonded as he is to the game of chess (that he plays all by himself) and his perpetually-in-migraine mode wife. Yet, Bakshi manages to keep afloat her hero - who could have in some other film sunk into despair, dragging viewers into an emotional pit.
The narrative cleverly avoids these clichés, and what it offers is sheer dignity in the face of death. Naseer gets this in a radiantly sombre way. No weeping, no hysterics, but just a beautiful calm which seems to be mocking death.
In a free-wheeling chat, Bakshi - who did ad movies and assisted directors before holding the megaphone for this feature - says that it was a friend who first gave her the idea of a coffin maker meeting death. "The idea stayed with me, and I have also seen death very closely. Both my parents died early and I had the misfortune of cremating them. I do not have brothers, only a sister, and I did not want anyone else to do this last rite".
She tells me that during both these terrible occasions, there were incidents that made her laugh. "I find that people do sometimes end up saying the funniest of things during a cremation. They do not mean to, but they say the weirdest of things which I find it extremely witty".
So in the midst of these tragedies, Bakshi found humour, a ray of hope to continue living - much like Anton, who wants to make the best of his remaining days on earth. The Coffin Maker looks at death in a funny, whimsical way. There is no tragedy in Anton. No weeping, no moping, and the movie, in many ways, is a lighthearted romp through one of Goa's little villages where life still seems uncomplicated and uncluttered by modern-day distractions like mobile phones and fancy cars.
"Death is not the end. Life has to go one," Bakshi avers - making one of life's most sorrowful happenings appear "light". She even makes Hooda, the harbinger of death, look suave and debonair. "For me death was always young and good looking" she smiles.
The Coffin Maker is one of the better works I have seen at IFFI. Not surprisingly, it has just won a top prize at the River to River Festival in Italy, and the big question now is whether it will go on to win another prize at Goa.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the International Film Festival of India)