Uunchai review: A smooth and winding road movie

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Three friends show up at a fourth friend’s birthday, bearing a poem as a gift. The birthday boy – actually an old man, like his three friends – asks, as he always does, for a different present. He wants to climb to Mount Everest base camp. His friends grumble and refuse, but Bhupen (Danny Denzongpa) doesn’t give up. “I’m very serious,” he says – an unfortunate turn of phrase, as he has a cardiac arrest that night and dies in bed.

Amit (Amitabh Bachchan), Om (Anupam Kher) and Javed (Boman Irani) meet the next day to perform the last rites. Next, Javed suggests burying Bhupen’s ashes in Varanasi. But Amit has just learned that Bhupen has taken their drunken reversal from the night before at face value and has booked them all for a trek to Everest Base Camp in two months. He feels they owe him to go – and although Om and Javed, both shop owners in Delhi, have huge doubts, they end up agreeing to get in shape, travel to the ‘Everest and scatter their friend’s remains in the place he loved the most.

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So begins a smooth, winding film full of hard-working life lessons and old-age comedy. Uunchai is too sweet and simplistic a road movie to compare to anything like Piku (Bachchan is the calm here, and Kher the whiny). But Sooraj Barjatya out in the open is definitely more fun than Barjatya locked up in a mansion. As the trio – plus Javed’s wife Shabina (Neena Gupta) and fellow Kathmandu traveler Mala (Sarika) – weave their way through Uttar Pradesh and the north, there’s a sleepy beat in their bickering which I rather enjoyed. The idea is to drop Shabina – who is unaware that her unfit husband plans to climb mountains – to their daughters in Kanpur and go through Gorakhpur, where Om could reconcile with her older brother.

It doesn’t work, of course. The girl and her husband tell their parents, politely but clearly, that they had previous plans that did not involve four announced guests. Om’s family home has fallen into disrepair, and with it his relationship with his brother. Amit himself is hiding secrets behind his best-selling author facade. The purpose of the film is now apparent: the trio will go from town to town picking up emotional crises, which will ultimately be resolved in the cold, clean air of the Himalayas.

I assumed, incorrectly, that this film would largely take place in the mountains. But an hour and a half later we’re still playing UP (the total running time is 170 minutes, a Barjatya mark that hasn’t changed). The accumulation of problems, the reiteration of infirmities is just too quiet for an audience that now has cell phones to check in theater and TV shows in which 13 important things happen in the first five minutes to get home to the House. As the three glide across the ice, testing the patience of tour guide Shraddha (Parineeti Chopra), I was friendly but quite distracted.

Kher overdoes his old crank part, and Bachchan doesn’t really let us in (maybe that’s the point, since his character has a habit of shutting people out). But Irani is charming in his usual way, doing acting stuff in the background. The film sums up their troubles so neatly and abruptly that it’s easy to forget that they’re actually heading into a wildly uncertain future, though the end credits push the mood towards mirth. It’s not just a movie about old people, it’s a movie like an old person: sweet, slow-paced and melancholic.

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