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Uunchai review: A soft, meandering road movie

Sooraj Barjatya pauses to take in the scenery in this film about three senior citizens who trek to the base of Everest

(from left) Anupam Kher, Boman Irani and Amitabh Bachchan in 'Uunchai'
(from left) Anupam Kher, Boman Irani and Amitabh Bachchan in 'Uunchai'

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Three friends show up a fourth friend’s birthday, bearing a poem as a gift. The birthday boy—actually an old man, like his three friends—asks, as he always does, for a different present. He wants to climb till the base camp of mount Everest. His friends groan and decline, but Bhupen (Danny Denzongpa) doesn’t give up. “I am dead serious,” he says—an unfortunate turn of phrase, as he has a cardiac arrest that night and passes away in his bed.

Amit (Amitabh Bachchan), Om (Anupam Kher) and Javed (Boman Irani) gather the next day to perform the last rites. Afterwards, Javed suggests immersing Bhupen’s ashes at Varanasi. But Amit has just learnt that Bhupen took their drunken reversal from the previous night at face value and booked them all on a trek to Everest base camp in two months’ time. He feels they owe it to him to go—and although Om and Javed, both store-owners in Delhi, have huge misgivings, they eventually agree to get in shape, travel to Everest and scatter their friend’s remains in the place he loved most.

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So begins a film that’s gentle and meandering, full of laboured life lessons and old-person comedy. Uunchai is too mild and simplistic a road movie to even compare with something like Piku (Bachchan is the calm one here, and Kher the whiner). But Sooraj Barjatya out in the open is certainly more fun than Barjatya cooped up in a mansion. As the trio—plus Javed’s wife, Shabina (Neena Gupta), and a fellow-traveller to Kathmandu, Mala (Sarika)—motor their way through Uttar Pradesh and up north, there’s a sleepy rhythm to their bickering that I rather enjoyed. The idea is to drop Shabina—who doesn’t know her unfit husband is planning to climb mountains—off at their daughters’ home in Kanpur, and proceed via Gorakhpur, where Om might reconcile with his estranged older brother.

It doesn’t work out, of course. The daughter and her husband tell their parents, politely but clearly, that they had prior plans that didn’t involve four guests dropping in announced. Om’s family home has decayed, and with it his relationship with his brother. Amit himself is hiding secrets behind his façade of a successful author. The purpose of the film is now apparent: the trio will go from town to town picking up emotional crises, which will finally be resolved in the cold, clear air of the Himalaya. 

I assumed, wrongly, that this film would unfold largely in the mountains. But one-and-a-half hours in, we’re still futzing around in UP (the full run-time is 170 minutes, a Barjatya trademark that hasn’t changed). The accumulation of problems, the reiteration of infirmities is just too leisurely for an audience that now has cell phones to check in the theatre and TV shows in which 13 important things happen in the first five minutes to go home to. By the time the three are slipping on ice, testing the patience of tour guide Shraddha (Parineeti Chopra), I was sympathetic but quite distracted. 

Kher overdoes his havering old crank part, and Bachchan doesn’t really let us in (that might be the point, since his character has a history of shutting people out). But Irani is delightful in his usual way, doing actorly things in the background. The film wraps up their problems so neatly and abruptly that it’s easy to forget they’re actually heading into an extremely uncertain future, though the end credits push the mood towards cheeriness. This is not just a film about old people, it's a film like an old person: soft-edged, slow-paced and wistful.

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