In the precisely chiselled Goldfish, a woman’s memory begins to slip away from her as her estranged daughter, scarred by childhood experiences that still rankle, returns home amid the Covid-19 pandemic and struggles to connect with a mother she drifted away from years ago.
Goldfish, cinematographer Pushan Kripalani’s second film as a director, is a layered, delicate mother-daughter drama about dementia, demons of the past and scalded souls. The English-language film, which strikes a delicate balance between craft and heart, is a studied and layered exploration of a relationship that has had more than its share of reverses.
The writing (by Arghya Lahiri and Kripalani) is top-notch and the camerawork (by the director himself) is unflashy yet evocative. Produced by Amit Saxena’s Splendid Films and presented by Anurag Kashyap, Goldfish derives a great deal of its power from the amazingly effective pairing of Deepti Naval and Kalki Koechlin.
The two actors are absolutely outstanding as they negotiate the emotional distance that has opened up between the characters they portray and the physical spaces within the mother’s suburban London home.
Naval plays Sadhana Tripathi, a woman who has lived by herself – and on her own terms – for years. Koechlin is Anamika Fields – Miku to her mom, Ana to her neighbours and others. The latter has returned home after many years following a mishap that her mother has suffered.
One of Sadhana’s neighbours, Laxmi Natrajan (Bharti Patel), a retired NHS nurse who knows the lonesome old lady better than anyone else, sends an SOS to Ana, a fact that Sadhana resents. She firmly believes that she is “good enough” to take care of herself notwithstanding the onset of dementia.
The neighbourhood, the street and the house are where Ana’s childhood memories reside. They are recognisable markers of her identity. But more than the tangible environment that she has come back to, it is the culture, music and language of her mother that defines who she is, or was.
Ana has been running away from her ethnic roots since she flew the coop after her dad’s untimely death and her growing disillusionment with her mom. Her parents are still Baba and Ma to her, but Ana no longer knows her mother tongue, Hindi.
As they engage uneasily with each other, labour to live down the past and grapple with what the future might hold, especially for Sadhana, mother and daughter are pulled in diametrically opposite directions by their minds. The past is ebbing away from Sadhana. But Ana is unable to let bygones be bygones.
Sadhana is a retired Indian classical vocalist who has had a long, fulfilling recording career. She clings to the music that once filled her life – it still does – and the smells (of cigarettes, of coffee blends, of a shared home, et al) that she remembers from her choppy marriage with an English backpacker she fell in love with during the latter’s sojourn through India.
The songs Sadhana recorded as a singer or heard as a classical music enthusiast are still fresh in her mind – and they play in her home from an old audiocassette player – but words have begun to elude her.
Ana finds herself dealing with a woman, a relationship, a culture and a language that are now alien to her. She is without a job, out of money, awaiting a new position that could bail her out of her financial troubles, and faced with the task of taking care of a difficult-to-fathom mother.
Goldfish is a profoundly moving portrait of remembering and forgetting, of echoes and erasures, but not in a superficially tear-jerking sort of way. Its poignance stems from the subtle, sensitive manner in which the film deals with the consequences of the fading of memory as it creeps up quietly – and devastatingly – on Sadhana. It brings Ana face to face with a reality that she can no longer escape.
Kripalani uses even lighting and flexible blocking to look in on Sadhana’s home and, more often than not, places the camera as close as possible to the two characters who are bound by blood and yet disconcertingly distant. It is like watching two individuals in a fishbowl, negotiating unresolved issues.
The cramped passage from the door that leads into the house, the narrow staircase to the first floor, Ana’s small bedroom and the stark white, near-ashen walls combine to approximate the states of mind that the film explores.
Diegetic songs (composed by Tapas Relia) play in Sadhana’s living room (the film does not have a conventional background score). The conversations between the two women are usually pared and almost cryptic. And the Hindi words that Sadhana occasionally utters and Ana does not understand reflect how far apart mother and daughter have become.
If one is slowly sinking into an abyss where everything is beginning to be a bit of a blur, the other is in the process of growing acutely aware of not only her moorings but also the wounds that still fester within her, a result of things that the two did to each other years ago.
Ana’s deceased dad is a key figure in the story and in her life. He isn’t seen or heard. He is, however, mentioned repeatedly as the daughter speaks out the letters that she wrote him, detailing her joys, hopes and disappointments.
Ana’s voice plays over a blank screen. Each brief interregnum creates a specific mood. The emotional inflections range from the mournful to the fervent. You should have been here now, Ana says in one of the letters to her father.
The script writes the peripheral characters into the story in a manner that each one of them, irrespective of the length of time they are on the screen, come across as rounded figures with their own meaningful arcs.
Not far from Sadhana’s home is the abode of Laxmi, her friend and errand woman for all the years that she has been on her own. Tilottama “Tilly” Gupta (Shanaya Rafaat) lives next door with her family. Others – superannuated notary Nitin Batra (Ravin J. Ganatra) and the neighbourhood’s all-weather man Bobby Persaud (Gordon Wernecke) – have also been around to watch over Sadhana.
Goldfish also has Rajit Kapur in the role of a man whose significant presence in Sadhana’s life takes Ana by surprise when she begins to draw up plans for her mother’s and her own future.
Goldfish, sure-handed in terms of style, does not ever dilute its subdued tone with overt explication. It leaves a lot to the audience’s imagination as it delves into zones of the mind and recesses of the heart. A not-to-be-missed gem.
Kalki Koechlin, Deepti Naval, Gordon Warnecke, Rajit Kapoor, Shanaya Rafaat