Dir. Rajat Kapoor
How do you decide what you believe? We live on a continuum that stretches from evidence to inference to faith. Most of us slide freely back and forth along it, never drifting too far toward one end or the other. Some things we believe to be true because we have witnessed them ourselves. Others, we take as established by the hard work and careful reasoning of experts we trust. Still other things we believe as a matter of pure faith.
Stories have been told about individuals who take faith to extremes. Sometimes these are exalted as religious heroes, other times exposed as beknighted fools. Ankhon Dekhi, though, turns its lens toward the other end of the spectrum.
In this story, Bauji (Sanjay Mishra) decides that he will trust nothing except what he has seen with his own eyes. Nothing short of first-hand experience will do. At first this seems a noble and even sensible way to avoid the pitfalls of untruth. Bauji's inspiration is the injustice he perceives when people invest belief in unsubstantiated claims; Bauji's family beats up Ajay (Namit Das, whose perpetually dazed expression is as perfect here as it was in Ghanchakkar), the boyfriend of his daughter Rita (Maya Sarao), based on neighbors' gossip about Ajay's womanizing. But when Bauji goes to meet Ajay himself, he finds a gentle, anxious, and responsible kid, not the slick operator he had been led to believe Ajay would be.
And so Bauji's plan to take nothing on faith or confidence is driven by a strong sense of justice. But his recalcitrance, and his extreme application of the principle, soon applies a shearing strain to Bauji's family and his life. Bauji works in a travel agent's office; he loses his job after telling an inquiring client that he couldn't possibly know how good a particular resort was, since Bauji had never been there for himself. Bauji's strange new ideas make him the laughing stock of Chandni Chowk, even while he begins to draw a following of local misfits who find him inspiring. The financial and social pressure is too much for Bauji's wife (Seema Pahwa), whose wails and laments escalate to deafening pitch and maddening constancy. And it gets on the last nerve of Bauji's brother Rishi (Rajat Kapoor) too; he takes his wife and son and moves out of Bauji's home, breaking up the joint family.
The rift between the brothers is the real story in Ankhon Dekhi; one doesn't wonder so much whether Bauji will come to his senses and take a more balanced view of reason and trust, as whether Bauji and Rishi will start speaking to each other again in time for Rita's wedding. And the tenderness of all the family relationships is where the beauty of Ankhon Dekhi lies. There is a touchingly relatable ordinariness to these characters, and an inviting warmth to their Delhi-6 home. The film's opening shots are in warm evening colors, voyeuristically peering in through the open windows in the courtyard, and as the camera moves into the confines of the home, the viewer also joins the family.
Later, we are privy to other delicate interactions in the family orbit. Before Bauji has told his family that he's lost his job, he spends his days loitering about Chandni Chowk. One day at a tea stall he runs into his nephew, who is bunking school. The two exchange an uncomfortable greeting, as each realizes the other's transgression. It is a sweet moment of familial bonding.
Ankhon Dekhi is not flawless. Bauji's wife's screeching is unbearable; it should have been possible to convey the feedback loop between her suffering and the burden her suffering imposes on the rest of the family without making her painfully shrill and irritating to the audience too. And there is a puzzling episode in which Bauji decides to stop speaking, on top of his commitment to believing nothing without witnessing it himself. This willful dumbness is at best tangential to his quest for truth, at worst at odds with it; it does nothing but aggravate his family further, and he drops it with little explanation. But Sanjay Mishra renders Bauji's stubborn adherence to his peculiar philosophy with such restrained guilelessness that the overall atmosphere of the movie is tender, even if a few of its threads are frayed. And the movie's motion through the bustling but friendly streets and shops and homes of Chandni Chowk adds a layer of relatable ordinariness that grounds Bauji's extraordinary resolution.
Ankhon Dekhi's ending raises a related question for the viewer to the one that Bauji raised for himself: How much of what we see can we believe? How much of this story is literal, and how much metaphor? If we do as Bauji does, and believe exactly what we see, the interpretation is almost unbearably sad. Ankhon Dekhi invites us to go beyond seeing is believing, to travel out of the literal world and into a space where seeing is only the beginning of a process of interpretation.