Indian Reviews Reviews

Film Review: Second Chance (2024) by Subhadra Mahajan

Courtesy of KVIFF
"Second Chance" is about healing and bonding, about forgiveness and acceptance of unjust cards dealt in life

Indian director has dedicated her black-and-white drama “Second Chance” in Hindi, English and Kullavi language to the Devis and Devtas of the Kullu & Lahaul Valley whose permission and blessings allowed her to tell a story set in their sacred Himalayan land. “Any and all merit accumulated by this work is dedicated to the happiness and awakening of all sentient beings”, she writes in the film's opening credits. It doesn't take long to understand these words. Once the story opens in the spectacular Himalayan scenery with the camera perched on the top of a hill to embrace it all, one can feel the overwhelming power of nature and its invisible creatures and deities. Not just the opener, but the whole film is shot in stunning black & white photography by the cinematographer Swapnil Suhas Sonawane (behind the lens of 's “”, India's official entry to the Oscars 2023), who keeps things simple by not adding more to what the eye already perceives as beautiful.

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It's winter when twenty-five-year-old Nia () reaches her family's summer retreat in a village situated in the Pir Panjal range of the state of Himachal Pradesh in Northern India. Her decision to be there at the most unlikely time of the year comes from the need to isolate herself from family and friends and from her boyfriend Kabir who ignores her pleas to call her back. Nia is going through a both psychologically and physically challenging situation on her own since the only person who knows about it decides to turn his back on her. At the same time, there isn't a better place to be. Out of season, high up in the mountain with only locals around, Nia gets what she needs the most in the secluded village – anonymity, and time to heal.

By dealing with a range of heavy-weight topics, out of which particularly one stands out as taboo-breaking, Mahajan is painting a realistic picture of a society defined by unwritten rules of conduct. Although a country with one of the most flexible abortion laws that allows women to seek medical help to terminate their pregnancies, their decisions to do so are not met with a lot of understanding or kindness in the society itself. Abortion is still regarded as the last possible option, and welcomed in exceptional situations only, which is why many young women decide to choose the illicit instead of safe abortion supervised by the medical staff. This is exactly what happens to Nia who learns the difference between the first and the latter in a difficult, horroresque way. On the other hand, the village she chose to withdraw to offers her unexpected support coming from an illiterate but life wise woman called Bhemi (Thakra Devi), almost triple her age who has a very traumatic personal experience herself, but also time, heart and patience to come to Nia's help.

For her debut feature set up in the area she grew up in, the Indian director found it crucial to show real people and real situations in an anti-Bollywoodian, small arthouse movie manner, without romanticizing a life of scarcity. Also, there is nothing drab about the way Bhemi, her son Raju (Rajesh Kumar) and her eight-year-old grandson Sunny (Kanav Thakur) spend their time in the village. They do their best to live with the spirit of the mountains, their unpredictable fits and the lack of such commodities as hot water.

To bring the villagers and the local culture close to the audience, Mahajan opted for non-professional actors, casting locals from the area, who speak in the region's genuine dialect. “Second Chance” is shot on a shoestring budget and with a tiny crew of film professionals, not surpassing four. Except for Johnson (who is also a new face on screen), as mentioned before, the complete cast consists of amateur actors found in the region. It took some time to convince Bhemi, who according to Mahajan, probably hasn't seen a movie in her life, to join the team. Thankfully, she did because she is one of the strongest assets of the movie. Similar is the case with her onscreen neighbour and buddy, shepherd Ganga Ram who in real life is equally engaged in environmental matters, as in the film. Mahajan lets him talk about the change in water patterns, dry glaciers, tunnels being drilled despite the mountains giving way, and the shrinking of springs and rivers in a conversation with Bhemi, who just has one dry comment on it all: “Well, at least you lived your life long enough”.

There is a kind of flirty energy between the two elderly people who meet (given the nature of their hard-working life) only occasionally to exchange thoughts and goods: a rare bark from the high mountains (which is allegedly helpful against headaches, tummy upsets and all kinds of ailments: “Pound it, boil it and drink it, works like magic!”) for the knitted, woollen garments. “I've never seen such a spark on a sock”, says Ganga Ram hinting that, if he ever had a chance to meet such a woman as Bhemi, he wouldn't stay a bachelor.

Under normal circumstances, Nia and Bhemi would never have met. The old woman is the mother-in-law of Nia family's housekeeper Raju who, away in the big city doing some errands, asked for Bhemi's help. The class difference is very obvious. The young woman comes from a privileged family who's paying the villagers to maintain the household and the property. But this is a sideline of the movie whose auteur also comes from a similar background as Nia. The focus is put on relationships instead, and on the young woman's bonding with Bhemi and her grandson, who in real life, claims Subhadra Mahajan “also is the naughtiest boy in the village”. First-time actress Dheera Johnson portraying Nia is a talent to watch, and knowing that she is currently in Los Angeles on Richard Boleslawski Scholarship for a full-time professional acting conservatory at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, we will probably get to see her in many more roles in the future.

“Second Chance” is about healing and bonding, about forgiveness and acceptance of unjust cards dealt in life. The film had its world premiere in the Proxima Competition of , which will definitely boost its chances of travelling to other great international film events in the near future.

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