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‘Smile Please’: Photographs, Memories and Dementia

Photo: Box Office India

By Nishi Pulugurtha

A young photographer – professional and the best in her field – goes about her work with finesse, confidence. These opening shots of the Marathi film Smile Please (2019) showcase the protagonist of the film. There are a couple of mistakes she makes – mistakes that one might make in course of one’s life and work. She misses out on the number of assignments and when reminded argues with her assistant about it. She checks her phone to confirm. Of course, it is blamed on the very late night message that she missed reading. This small lapse, though explained, kind of prepares us for another trouble that she faces. She is on her way for a presentation and while driving she has a problem locating the address and finding her way through. While making her presentation too she falters and needs her assistant to step in. The maid at her home finds her car keys in the refrigerator.

Nandini Joshi (played with great subtlety by Mukta Barve) is a successful photographer at the peak of her professional career. Nandini lives with her father, Appa (Satish Alekar), who is extremely supportive and in many ways responsible for her choice of career. Nandini is divorced but has an amicable relationship with her ex-husband, Shishir (played by Prashant Oak). Her teenage daughter Nupur (Vedashri Mahajan) lives with her father and hates her mother. We are told much later in the movie that the marriage had been a very troubled one and Shishir made sure the girl had no contact with her mother, not only that he even filled her mind against her mother. As a result Nupur misbehaved with her mother and completely ignored her.

These mistakes and errors that Nandini makes compel her see a doctor who is also her dear friend (played by Aditi Govitrikar). The diagnosis is early onset dementia. It upsets her and her father and it is interesting to note the way film treats this. Appa is disturbed, sad to find out about his daughter’s condition, but he continues to be a great support to her as he has always been. He explains her situation to the maid with great care. The doctor who breaks the news to Nandini speaks to her ex-husband as well explaining in detail about the condition and its seriousness. It is also interesting to note the way she conducts the tests – the ones with words and numbers.

The film shows it all – Nandini’s difficulty with words, the way she looks, the lost look, the blank stare, the abstract puzzled look, the mood swings, the loss of interest and concentration, the difficulty in recollecting names, the inability to recognize at times, the recognition that comes in a bit late, the loss of self-confidence, the retreating into one’s shell, the withdrawal, the smiles, the sense of being lost – all of it is shown beautifully in the film. Appa and the maid Jyoti (played by Trupti Khamkar) make things as normal as they can for Nandini. She quits her job as the mistakes make it difficult for her to continue working. The film also shows how people react to it, with news items speaking of her ‘mental’ illness, of how she has lost it all, thereby increasing her loss of confidence.

It is at this stage in the film Viraj (played by Lalit Prabhakar) comes into their lives. He is a guest in Nandini’s house. Viraj notices Nandini and her behaviour; he also finds out details about her and tries his level best to socially interact with her. He has had a lonely childhood and as he notices Nandini retracting into her shell, he finds out more about her from Appa and slowly begins interacting with her. Initially Nupur does not like him, but as her interactions with him increase, her attitude towards him and her mother too changes. She even questions her father and his attitudes. Nandini had completely stopped using her camera and taking photographs. As Viraj gives her his camera and tells her that it is not working, she looks at him and tells him that she understands what he is doing. She looks at him for a longer time and then tells him that she is no mechanic and that he needs to take it to a shop that repairs cameras. When he asks her where she should take it, she looks at him and gives a vague address. Anyone who has cared for someone with dementia will immediately understand the reactions. There are moments when the understanding and reasoning works and at times they do not. There is just no way to know exactly what the reactions would be like; at times they seem just correct and expected and at times one can see that the tangled nerves are causing all the havoc.

It is interesting to note the way Nandini gels with the stranger in her life, Viraj. At first wary, distant, at times indifferent and then slowly she begins to feel comfortable with him. It might seem a little too contrived to many but then that is how someone who has dementia reacts – she/he reacts to comforting talk, to gestures, to non-verbal communication, to a friendly gesture, to people known or unknown. However, there are mixed reactions too, it will not always be the same way. There is one episode where Nandini is with her daughter and Viraj and she just walks away oblivious to the fact that Viraj and Nupur might be looking for her. She boards an auto and heads off to her office – the one where she used to work. She enters the office and as was the norm she asks for a cup of her usual green tea. She remembers an idol of the god Ganesh on the table; as she doesn’t see it, she is clearly disturbed as she removes the clothes put on the table in an agitated manner. Her boss, on seeing her there, reacts to her genially and slowly takes her home. On the occasion of her daughter’s birthday party as the guests are in and waiting for Nandini, she walks in clad in her bathing suit, with hair dishevelled, and looking lost unaware that she is not properly dressed. The reactions of her family range from sympathy to pity to embarrassment and anger.

Smile Please is one of the very few Indian films that make dementia the theme of the film with the protagonist suffering from it. Unlike the Bengali film Mayurakshi that does refer to dementia but where the central focus is on the father-son relationship, the focus here is entirely on Nandini and her condition. What it does to her life, her career, how it affects the lives of her family members, of the way in which common people react to it, of how she is labelled as having a mental disorder, the behavioural changes that come to her, her awareness of what it entails, of how she would slowly lose much of what she was and still is, of the care that she gets from her family who are themselves trying to come to terms with it, of the way in which people who love her try to involve her in things she loved doing, of letting her be when she feels like it.

Fashion designer turned filmmaker, Vikram Phadnis’s debut film Hrudayantar (2017) starring Subodh Bhave and Mukta Barve, dealt with a couple whose daughter had cancer and how that affected the family. Phadnis wonderfully deals with the subject of dementia in his second venture with a sensitivity and accurateness of portrayal. There is no sentimentalism and melodrama; rather the film shows a family coming to terms with dementia, learning to deal with it. Appa tries hard to control the pain and the sorrow at seeing his daughter who had been smart and confident, an achiever losing so much as the condition progresses. It is love, affection and social bonding that help in dealing with the condition. Anyone who has dealt with a loved one with the condition knows how true that is and how well it works. There is no cure for it; it is degenerative but then all is not lost, there are glimmers of hope and it is up to the family, friends and the social group to just be there and support in whatever way possible. It is this positivity that actually makes things a little better and makes each day worth living. Streaming online now, Smile Please is a must watch for anyone interested in the way a film deals with a medical condition and handles it wonderfully – a rarity in Indian cinema.

Nandini is a photographer and the camera and photographs are important motifs in the film. A photograph tells stories; it is about capturing a memory so that one can go back to it, go back in time and relive it all over again. In the case of someone with dementia, the past and the present are all blurred. Memories are muddled up: a picture, a photograph, an image, a song, a lyric, some music, touch, a smile function in much the same way. They comfort, help recollect, create a sense of warmth, of niceness, to be forgotten in a moment, to come back again at times when one least expects them. That all is not lost (even for someone who has dementia) is what the film speaks out loud.

Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University and Rabindra Bharati University. Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film. She is a creative writer and writes on travel, Alzheimer’s Disease, film, short stories and poetry. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Café DissensusColdnoonQueen Mob’s Tea House and Setu. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019).


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5 Responses to “‘Smile Please’: Photographs, Memories and Dementia”

  1. anawadhboyspanorama

    Your work greatly reminds me of the talents of Ms.Mukta Barve who was present in the ensemble of recent short film DEVI . Still Alice (2015) starring Julianne Moore in an Oscar winning portrayal, dealt with early onset dementia with illuminating sensitivity. Your article reminded me of it .

  2. Sri Dhar

    Does anybody know the house in which the movie was filmed? I loved the house architecture and would like to know if this is a movie set or a real house.


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