KOLKATA: In medical parlance, the word ‘coma’ is a state of unconsciousness in which the comatose person cannot be awakened or made conscious by any means and does not respond to painful stimuli, light or sound, lacks a normal wake-sleep cycle and does not initiate any voluntary action of body or brain. The word ‘coma’ as used in medicine is derived from the Greek word koma meaning ‘deep sleep.’ The biggest problem with comatose patients is that there is no medical knowledge that can predict a definite closure for them. The patient might come out of coma, may die in a comatose condition and may remain in coma forever even while other family members, normal and healthy, may predecease the comatose relative. Coma is a very tragic reality of the grey area that sustains between life and death that is not defined, either by science or by medicine by definite closure.

What happens to the close family members of the person lying in coma? They do not know whether the comatose person will come out of coma or not. They have no idea about when the said person comes out of coma if he/she does, will the person come out in the same form and shape as he/she was before the coma happened? So, uninformed even by the medical fraternity, their lives are reduced to just one action, thought and word – waiting. Most of the time, they wait outside the unit where the patient is placed. Sometimes, they bide their time in the canteen emptying umpteen cups of coffee and going through medical journals of every hue to know some definite answers, or while away time in different areas of the hospital complex.

London-based Anu Menon’s second feature film Waiting, is about two people thrown together by a strange twist of destiny because their respective spouses lie coma in the same hospital. Tara (Kalki Koechlin), newly married, is 26, a social media consultant, while Shiv (Naseeruddin Shah), 64, is a retired professor of History. Tara’s husband Rajat (Arjun Mathur) was injured in a car crash during a work trip to Cochin and lies in coma. The doctors have no clue about whether he will come out of it unscathed or whether he will come out of it at all. Menon bagged the Best Director award at the recent London Asian Film Festival for the film.

“It was not by design but Waiting ended being pretty much an all women crew. It led to cheeky T-shirts being printed that said “Wo(men) at work” - which even the few good men on the set wore sportingly. It was a tough shoot but the girl talk and camaraderie took a lot of the edge off. God’s own country, Cochin which offers a novel backdrop for a Hindi film usually shot in regular locations like Shimla or Bangalore or Pune and so on” informs Menon. Neha Parti Matiyani has done the cinematography, Atika Chohan has penned the dialogue, story and screenplay are by Anu Menon along with Jimmy Ruzicka, Nitin Baid, and Apurva Asrani have edited the film and music is by Mikey McCleary.

Shiv’s wife Pankaja (Suhasini Maniratnam) has been lying in coma for eight months in the same hospital and the doctors are unwilling to conduct a spinal invasion because they do not see much hope in her condition. He offers a cup of coffee to the staff and other fraternity in the hospital while Tara is distanced from them. Her worry is whether to allow Rajat to go into surgery that may or may nor help of whether to accept him as a man physically and mentally damaged by the coma as the doctors predict.

The two individuals are as different as chalk from cheese. While the young and bubbly Tara cannot utter a single sentence without peppering it with expletives, Shiv is not only traditionally ‘decent’ but also does not have any clue about what Twitter means or stands for. Yet, the two try to meet at the common point where waiting is the only action that binds them together though their ideologies about life, love, dying, coming out of coma, use of invasive surgery et all are in direct conflict. Kalki Koechlin, 32, who recently won the Special Jury Award as Best Actress for her phenomenal performance of a real-life victim of cerebral palsy in Margarita with a Straw at the National Awards, portrays Tara. Naserruddin Shah, who plays Shiv pondered over the script for nearly one year before giving the go-ahead signal.

Waiting explores the little-known mindscapes of the spouses of patients lying in indefinite coma within a hospital setting. The main thrust of the film is on “vicarious trauma”, a term that describes the cumulative transformative effect on the helper/ care-giver/ close family member who is involved in different ways with very sick patients or patients in coma. The symptoms can appear much like those of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but also encompass changes in frame of reference, identity, a sense of safety, ability to trust, self-esteem, intimacy, and a sense of control. The presence of vicarious trauma has been noted in many groups of helping professionals who have close contact with people who have experienced traumatic events. Waiting was premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) last year.

The film also takes subtle but razor-sharp pot shots at the head of the medical fraternity, represented by Dr. Nirupam (Rajat Kapoor) who teaches a first nervous and then shocked junior how to face questions from a family member with just the right gestures and body language to be used to appease the member. In other words, the director points out a silent but expressive accusing finger at the insensitivity of experienced doctors towards coma patients and their families. The songs, though on the soundtrack and not lip-synched, are either wrongly placed or redundant given the deep emotional tone of the film.

Menon says, “Waiting is a film about a special relationship between two people who befriend each other unexpectedly in a hospital while nursing their individual spouses in coma. It is a film about grief, but it is also about confronting it.” The film does not show any ‘nursing’ happening because the hospital is a luxurious place with attendant nurses looking after the patients. Yet, Shiv talks to his wife, reads out to her, covers her up when he feels she needs it. He does it more to appease himself. In the eight months his wife has been in coma, Shiv has read so many medical journals that Tara first mistakes him to be a doctor. His reading to his wife is traced back probably to a Northwestern Medicine and Hines VA Hospital study published in Chicago last year that shows that the voices of loved ones telling the patient familiar stories stored in his/her long-term memory can help awaken the unconscious brain and speed recovery from the coma.

Tara finds out ways of coping by going on a shopping spree and taking the old Shiv along, or, mouthing four-letter expletives till Shiv also utters one or two, or, puffing a cigarette or getting drunk enough to break into a dance one night in Shiv’s apartment. It is a platonic relationship that might end when something happens to one of the comatose spouses and they know it. Tara also laments the lack of even one friend beside her from her long list of friends on Facebook and Twitter when Ishita flies in to prove her wrong.

One problem with the film is that the hospital seems almost devoid of the families of other in-patients because we always see only Shiv and Tara except one or two in the waiting lounge. The flashbacks into happier times of these characters when their spouses were healthy and fine are restrained and do not linger yet add flesh to the narrative.

The normal, otherwise healthy lives of Tara and Shiv are reduced to waiting – on the staircase of the luxurious hospital, its canteen, the waiting room outside the OT and in the gardens of the hospital complex, or in a pub. Will grief drive them both insane, or can two lonely strangers support each other caught in a time-space warp they can neither get out of nor remain within forever?

Menon has the final word. “Waiting is a very personal film, through which I would like explore what does it really mean to love someone - is it to have the strength to let go of your loved one even if it kills you... or to have the courage to accept them in whatever shape and form they are in. One could also perhaps call it an anatomy of grief - closely observing what it does to you. But at the heart of it all, it is a relationship film - of Shiv and Tara, the two unlikely characters who become kindred spirits and help each other out.”