Waiting knows its characters, setting and story quite well, and steers clear from clichés.
Anu Menon’s Waiting opens to a man who wakes up with a sense of purpose. He switches off his alarm (set for 6 am), gets ready, and drives off to what initially looks like his place of work: a hospital. Once he’s at the hospital, he greets the receptionist, hands her a cup of coffee (“you deserve it; you work hard”), goes to an ICU room and talks with a nurse about a patient’s latest reports. Nearly everything about that man, Shiv (Naseeruddin Shah), says that he’s a doctor. But when the nurse addresses him as “uncle”, and he asks the woman in the room, on a ventilator, “How is my favourite wife?” we finally understand who Shiv is: He’s not a doctor; he’s a husband. Shiv has embodied the very essence of waiting, he’s become part of his surrounding; the hospital has become his second home and he knows this home quite well.
Later in the film, in scenes where Shiv’s in the hospital room with his wife, Pankaja (Suhasini Maniratnam), who has been in coma for the last eight months, unable to hear and talk, the room’s not silent, because he talks to her. He tells her about his day, reads a book to her, complains about the younger generation’s impatience and vacuity. Pankaja isn’t completely alive, but Shiv hopes one day she would be.
He eventually finds a companion in Tara (Kalki Koechlin), whose husband, Rajat (Arjun Mathur), just like Pankaja, is in coma. Unlike Shiv, Tara, who belongs to a different generation, isn’t really attuned to the real meaning of wait. She’s impatient, frequently angry and slowly realising how frustrating, and unrewarding, hope can be.
These motifs aren’t new; we’ve seen their snatches in quite a few films before, particularly in Pedro Almodovar’s searing and haunting 2001 movie, Talk to Her. But Waiting is different, for it is very much Menon’s movie: it knows its characters, setting and story quite well, steers clear from clichés (which are always around the corner in a film like this) and finds its own joys and sorrows. In an early scene in the film, Tara, while going through Rajat’s belongings, finds his cellphone. We probably know what will happen next. Tara will find out, through the text messages on his phone, that Rajat was cheating on her, and this knowledge will form a part, if not the crux, of her moral ambivalence. Tara does read his phone messages, thinks that he’s cheating on her, and loses her cool. But she soon finds out that she was mistaken, being immature and silly or, in her own words, “a dick”. Waiting emerges as a strong film in small moments like these, where the director assures you that she isn’t interested in taking the easy route, that her characters will find their own pits, and, as it turns out, they do.
For a film that starts on a grim note, it’s impressive how Waiting barely foists its sadness on us or, for that matter, tells us how to feel. Its characters are less interested in verbalising their loss, more in trying to understand how they’ll negotiate it, because sadness and despair in real life aren’t smoothened over by eloquent lines or a poignant background score. In fact, at one point in the film, Tara’s friend, close to breaking down, tells this to Rajat: “Homeland’s fourth season has begun. Now, who will tell us what TV series to watch?” And just then, the camera tracks back, and the sound of a guitar underscores the scene. It’s one of the few false notes in the film, where a character seems to be acting for the camera, trying hard to impress. Similarly, the other flaws in the movie, too, revolve around the peripheral characters, such as Rajat’s co-worker Girish (Rajeev Ravindranathan)—a conservative, socially awkward corporate guy—who seems planted to infuse comic relief in the movie, or Rajat Kapoor’s Nirupam (another uni-dimensional character)—a callous, manipulative doctor—who, by the climax, becomes the film’s unlikely antagonist. The supporting parts aren’t badly acted, but they should have been written with more nuance. These shortcomings, however, are, in the end, quibbles, because Waiting’s main actors, Shah and Koechlin, thanks to impressive acting and confident writing, carry the film on their shoulders.
Both Shiv and Tara react to individual moments (goofing around and smoking weed at one instant, shouting at doctors the another), refute each other, sometimes contradict themselves. We don’t see characters like these in Hindi cinema often, whose actions aren’t guided by templates or rulebooks, but their instincts and whims. In Waiting, Menon frees the definition of grief: here, people aren’t sad all the time; they live their lives between despair and hope, between unending uncertainty and small burst of joys, between holding on and letting go. Equally important, she lets Shiv and Tara live their own lives; they aren’t each other’s crutches. But, at the same time, companionship does make it easy to endure pain, to move on (even if just for the next few hours), momentarily forget what once felt unforgettable. And it’s equally impressive that none of this is emphasised. For instance, when Shiv, who barely eats food sent to him by his neighbour, goes to a shopping mall—a place he disapproves of—with Tara, he comes back and eats the same food he’s been ignoring for months, in a fleeting shot that lasts only for few seconds.
With a runtime of 98 minutes, Waiting feels slightly rushed in its final scenes. Which is strange because the film is otherwise intelligently paced, and you expect that ingenuity in its final stretches, too. But it’s also a testimony to Menon’s storytelling ability that we are left wanting for more.