Biweekly Binge: On Private Life and its Antithesis, Badhaai Ho
A fortnightly column on what’s good – old and new - in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you
Early in Tamara Jenkins' Private Life, we see a clinic that seems futuristic, like something out of a science fiction film set inside a spaceship, decades into the future. Everything is blindingly smooth and squeaky white - the walls, the floor, the desks and tables, except for the nurses' scrubs and patients' gowns. Everyone is there for an IVF procedure and Jenkins' intention in these initial portions is to set up everything from the effort to the procedures as something artificial and methodically choreographed, which they are. Private Life is about Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) at the desperate end of their spectrum of attempts at starting a family. The title is a deliberate misnomer as the film quickly establishes how every process from hereon is devoid of any emotional or human resonance - something taken for granted when exercising the most common option to start a family. Now, it's all out in the open with doctors, nurses, friends, relatives, donors and the works.
In Jenkins' film, there is palpable apathy even from bystanders and sidewalk passers-by. When Richard thinks aloud about considering a donor egg, Rachel is visibly aghast, and we see a familiar New York City sidewalk that discards them as invisible and this applies to many characters in the film, especially doctors, nurses and people in the health department. A doctor, in one of the early portions, declares to Rachel that there is no sperm in Richard's semen, with no visible movement in her face. Another doctor uses progressive rock to distract during a transfer while an anaesthesiologist, in admitting how boring his job is, only bores the patient further. Only a receptionist is capable of any sort of empathy, telling Rachel that they are all rooting for her. But everywhere else there is only pamphleteering, selling different options, different procedures, a well-oiled capitalist machinery at work (at one point, the website for searching and contacting egg donors is referred to as eBay for ova). Jenkins' colours all of this with black humour that makes us laugh at the couple's plight, while also recognising how destabilising and demoralising this can be on a relationship, and how invested they are despite it.
Badhaai Ho, the latest Hindi film from Amit Ravindernath Sharma, works like an antithesis to Private Life. The principal old couple in Badhaai Ho--Jeetendar (Gajraj Rao) and Priyamvada (Neena Gupta)--find themselves in the midst of an accidental pregnancy, and now having to deal with it in front of an old-fashioned mother-in-law, two sons--the elder one in his late 20s or thereabouts and the younger one in high school--and the public at large. This situation is mined for comedy; not as much the pregnancy itself, but the people around them and how discomfiting it is for them to learn and talk about it. The aesthetics of Badhaai Ho are more old Delhi middle-class, and while the extended family is part welcoming, part repulsed, Jeetendar finds himself in a station of new-found respect for his masculinity -- this is of course celebrated in an ironical fashion. Priyamvada bears the brunt of the questioning glances and veiled, inappropriate line of inquiries. The film inevitably leads to a celebration of family and life, of recognising middle-aged to old couples as sexual beings, the children understanding boundaries and being accommodating of their parents' desires, and the outside world, more understanding of private lives.
This is in direct contrast to a more apathetic New York City, more so in gentrified Brooklyn, in Jenkins' film. Private Life is almost nihilistic in how the struggling couple are constantly in the face of parents and children--during parties, Halloween, Thanksgivings--on one end and forlorn looking faces of men and women at the clinic. The pop culture and real-world references are far from life affirming -- Rosemary's Baby, The Handmaid's Tale, Serpico and Mary Beth Whitehead. They force themselves to have discussions about putting so much effort in the face of global warming, overpopulation, rise of neo-fascism. There is even a child dressed as climate change during Halloween. Badhaai Ho revels in Rajesh Khanna songs, where even the sad ones are played for laughs. At one point, a frustrated Richard suggests to Rachel that she should try denial sometimes, it comes in very handy. In Badhaai Ho, the elder son Nakul (Ayushmann Khurrana) lives in denial for a large part of the film, unable to take in simple facts about his parents. It would be a fun exercise to have Richard and Rachel talk to Jeetendra and Priyamvada, and their children. The conversation might begin with despondency, but there is a good chance of them moving on to share a laugh or two.
Private Life is streaming on Netflix.