‘Goodbye’: When Death in the Family Brings Banality in Its Wake

Vikas Bahl’s Goodbye opens to a death in the family.

A death so sudden, of a woman named Gayatri (Neena Gupta), that none of her children were around.

Her daughter, Tara (Rashmika Mandanna), a lawyer, was partying in Mumbai. One of her sons, Karan (Pavail Gulati), a corporate professional in New York, was not even in the same country. Neither was Angad (Sahil Mehta), the adopted son. Ditto the youngest, Nakul (Abhishekh Khan), whose phone still remains unreachable. The only person by Gayatri’s side was someone who had never left her side: her friend, her lover, her husband, Harish (Amitabh Bachchan).

This death, though, can also mean the death of the family, as Gayatri was its binding glue, a bridge between the traditional Harish and nonconformist Tara. That conflict is most evident at Gayatri’s funeral. As she lies on ice slabs outside her house, a family friend (Ashish Vidyarthi) obsesses over the direction of the dead body. Tara scoffs at these customs, annoying her father.

It’s not all gloom though. Gayatri’s friends, sitting on the lawn, wait for empty chairs; their aching feet are their most pressing concerns. One of them refuses tea, adding, not so meekly, that she prefers black coffee. They discuss their morning walks; one of them has bought new shoes. Later, when a photo of Gayatri, posing with a glass of wine, is put behind her dead body, they wonder if they have suitable photos for such an occasion.

Now what if I tell you this: that this is essentially the whole film. Yeah, no exaggeration.

Two broad ideas: a discontent family coping with death, and tragedy seen through the lens of humour.

The first idea, which forms the movie’s emotional core, finds little support in its flat characters. It’s the old Bollywood trick: a character described in a sentence, who keeps repeating her thesis, scene after scene, till she changes. So Tara continues to emphasise that she’s a free-thinker; Harish continues to… you get the idea.

A still from ‘Goodbye.’

But the rest are equally, if not more, baffling. Take Karan, the ‘workaholic’ son. His mother’s death has no impact on him: He continues to fixate on work, even at the airport, taking calls on the flight. It’s the same when he returns home. He’s on a work call even while circling around his dead mother, holding an earthen pot. You wonder about his indifference that borders on cruelty. The film provides no help. It feels all the more bizarre, as the flashbacks show him as an “ideal son”.

If this is a movie about death bringing a family together, then the writing, by Bahl, makes no effort. For the large part, there’s barely any meaningful conversations among the siblings or with the father. Were these people not close ever? Or were they at some point, but then drifted apart? These are not questions that an audience member should be asking. These questions should have occurred to Bahl, compelling him to write another draft. The flashback tries to fill in the gaps, but they’re centred on generic familial disagreements. The first half still has some narrative momentum and purpose; the second half has nothing.

To make the film funny, Bahl introduces Sunil Grover playing a ‘modern’ baba. He has a laptop! It has a password called “Yaad nahin, Y capital”! Laugh, laugh, laugh! The laptop pauses at one point; Grover says it’s “buffering” – more laughter! Wait, wait, Bahl seems to be saying, you don’t find all this funny? Let me milk the ignorance of a foreigner, Karan’s wife, Daisy (Elli AvrRam), for more humour.

Sorely lacking fresh ideas, Goodbye is brimming with narrative padding: songs, flashbacks, Harish’s weepy monologue (that lasts for at least seven minutes), Karan not wanting to shave his head, and on and on. Even at an aesthetic level, it operates in three broad modes: ‘funny’ (the background score gives constant cues), sad (a wailing Maai Re plays whenever the characters remember their mother), and miscellaneous (when the film is waiting to be funny or sad).

Even by its own standards, though, Goodbye takes a bizarre detour in the second half. Grover’s character convincing Tara – and, consequently, the audiences – the importance of tradition. Like the rest of the film, this subplot is flimsy, too. But the characters have to change, so they of course change. Karan gets his head tonsured; Tara feeds a crow (because it has “aatma” or whatever – something she made fun of earlier); Daisy knits a sweater, starts talking in Hindi. What next, I thought, the family watching The Kashmir Files together?

This bland movie doesn’t even make you angry. It could have been a good 12-minute short. Actually, scratch that, I’m not so sure. Because just two scenes, lasting for less than a minute, moved me. Maybe an Insta Reel? Actually, scratch that as well: I’ve seen enough reels that have more originality and vitality than this film that never leaves its deathbed.

Featured image: A still from ‘Goodbye’.

This article was first published on The Wire.