There were 12 regional and 3 Bengali films chosen for screening at the Indian Select at the 21st Kolkata International Film Festival. However, it was not an uphill task for the jury to pick the best because the average quality of films left much room for improvement though some of them had already bagged National Awards last year. In this scenario, picking up the best film was easy and smooth-going and there was no debate among the three jury members who represented the Indian Film Critics Association founded in 2013.

The winner was Last Page (Kannada) directed by Nikhilmanjoo Lingaiah. This is his second feature film the first being Hajj which explores a mother-son relationship in an extremely impoverished family. The son dreams of taking his mother to Hajj while the mother wishes him to marry a young widow who lives on the other side of the river. Lingaiah who has a solid background in theatre, bagged the Best Actor Award for his work in the film at the Karnataka State Awards in 2013.

Last Page explores the metamorphosis in the character of Somanna (H.G. Somashekar Rao) an old, retired school teacher who lives with Janaki (Bhargavi Narayan) his wife in a small two-storeyed house in one corner of the city. Somanna is a cantankerous old man who constantly nags his wife and gets into heated arguments with the neighbourhood grocer. He is a difficult man to live with but his wife takes all this with stoic calm as she goes about her household chores without a murmur. Fate intervenes when Somanna has a heart attack and needs an emergency surgery. He rebukes the surgeon for having accepted the payment for this from his son and insists on clearing the bills himself. His sickness follows by the surgery brings about a change in his behaviour especially towards his wife.

Afraid that death is lurking round the corner, he sets about making arrangements for the financial stability of his wife in his absence. One fine morning, it is Janaki who dies of a heart attack on the way to hospital. Somanna tries to cope with his new lonely life by going for walks and sitting down beside a pond where boys come to play. He finds that they fail to make paper boats that keep afloat and teaches them how. The film ends on this note of hope. The message on empathy for senior citizens comes across only through suggestion and implication and is never loud or crude.

Lingaiah’s celluloid statement on old age and the small idiosyncrasies that accompany it unfolds a beautiful story over a brief span of 60 minutes without lingering over small issues. The production design of the little house behind the grilled iron gate which makes a screeching sound when it is opened and shut are examples of the director’s keen eye for detailing. The interiors of the house are painted in simple colours, furniture is simple but the one thing that throws up a facet of Janaki’s character is that she does every single household chore herself, dispensing with household staff probably because her husband is a stingy old man but honest to the core. There are small flashbacks into Somana’s past as a teacher where he puts his foot down on any kind of compromise with his principles and his job. He gets into a tiffy with the grocer who refuses to accept lozenges in place of small change and comes back without fetching his packet of milk. Janaki then comes, apologizes to the grocer, pays him the small change and brings the packet home. This not only fleshes out the difference between the husband and wife but also focusses on the wife’s acceptance of her husband’s foibles.

The editorial pace of the film is slow but it has a rhythm of its own in keeping with the two elderly protagonists of the film who are in no hurry to reach anywhere. The actors, including the brief cameos portrayed by the surgeon, the paramedical staff, and the coaching class teachers in the flashback are so spontaneous and natural that at times one feels one is watching a documentary film. The music is low key and subtle and so is the film. It does not hold a flag or shout slogans, real or metaphorical but manages to get its message across through its subtlety that makes the message all that more intensive and deep reaching. The director has followed a minimalistic approach in terms of characterisation, physical and social ambience to portray the life of an old couple who keep away from a socially active life either because they are too old or because they are not interested. The cinematography is not very low key but is not loud either, focussed on quire a few close-ups when the camera holds their facial expressions for the audience to be privy to.

Janaki’s pain comes across in one scene when she says quietly that it was Somanna who drove their son away when he complaining about the son leaving them to fend for themselves in their old age. The son, who remains off screen and is not audible through his voice, makes his presence felt when he pays for his father’s surgery directly to the hospital knowing that his father might not accept any grace from him. The citation by the Jury states that Last Page was chosen among the 15 entries “for its delicate balance among form, content and technique to narrate a story that is a powerful metaphor pleading empathy for the aged.” A poignant and lovely offering that says everything it had so say and some more, over the brief span of 60 minutes.

Lingaiah’s inclination towards the marginalised and the oppressed through his two films Hajj and Last Page is understandable when one learns that he has a degree in human psychology, has worked for several NGOs and believes in the theory that making a film means building a nation. Filmmaking is his passion in life.