Toronto Film Review: ‘The Sky is Pink’

Dennis Harvey

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Shonali Bose’s much-laureled 2014 “Margarita with a Straw” was a film whose presentation of a cerebral palsy-afflicted heroine sidestepped all the usual hand-wringing inspirational clichés of disability portrayal, making her story all the more enlightening and affecting. It is particularly disappointing, then, that the director’s followup should approach another tale of genetic infirmity with all the sentimentality and cuteness that last project avoided.

“The Sky Is Pink” starts with a long disclaimer (rushing by almost too fast to read) basically asserting that the film can be held accountable for representing no one’s view save that of the real-life family depicted, in particular the mother upon whose “detailed narrations“ it is based. Perhaps that’s the root of the problem here: In bending to the wishes of the surviving subjects, Bose has created an idealizing, conventional tearjerker that feels more fictive than fictional “Margarita” did. For that reason, “Pink” (which opens in the U.S. and India on Oct. 11) may well have greater popular appeal than its predecessor. But it’s a distinct letdown, coming after one of the more delightful surprises of recent years.

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A cloying tone sets in immediately, with protagonist Aisha Chaudhary (Zaira Wasim) narrating from beyond the grave — forever a spunky, indulged favorite child, impudently dwelling on her parents’ sex lives or current lack thereof. In their grief, the formerly frisky couple of ex-karate competitor Niren (Farhan Akhtar) and onetime “almost” Miss India Aditi (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) are letting any remaining wild oats go to rot. But in different times this glam duo who married “out of caste” (the script provides no details on that) were all over each other.

Though the script structure jumps around a bit, its majority is a chronological flashback that begins in earnest with the birth of their third child Aisha. She follows brother Ishaan (eventually played by Rohit Suresh Saraf), plus a firstborn sister who died of the same rare condition Aisha is born with: SCID, or Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, a genetic disorder that lays the child wide open to infectious diseases. Moving to London for treatment from world-class specialists, forced to fundraise to cover various extensive medical procedures despite their apparent middle-class prosperity, the Chaudharys try long-distance wedlock and childrearing for a while. Then they surrender to Aisha’s needs, relocating whole to England for what turns out to be a full decade.

Somewhat miraculously surviving that long, Aisha is deemed fit for a return to India, where the family can now live in relative splendor thanks to dad’s corporate-executive post. Still, her years are numbered, despite mom’s constant furious research of all treatment options. An artist, blogger and motivational speaker (we eventually see a clip of her TED talk), Aisha lives just long enough to see the publication of her book called “My Little Epiphanies” at age 18.

All this should be touching, but “The Sky Is Pink” consistently sells itself too hard (not to mention too long at 142 minutes), with music video-style sequences, arguments played in a cute sitcom mode, tearful soapy histrionics and so forth. The emotions we witness and feel should have more force given the obviously stressful circumstances depicted. But they feel like all the edges have been sawed off to flatter both the subjects and principal actors.

Jonas and Akhtar make a very glossy couple who do not age at all credibly over what is meant to be a three-decade span. The score by Mikey McCleary (Pirtam and Gulzar contribute separate songs) leans heavily on such instruments of twee as accordions, whistling and pseudo-1920s Western dance music. Even the narrator admits, “Cuteness has its limits,” but this movie — which duly features a puppy — does not heed that wisdom.

The real-life figures no doubt wanted to depict their beloved late daughter in the best possible light. But somehow that has translated into a pervasive air of maudlin contrivance that makes everything and everyone here seem too carefully prepackaged. The family’s very privileged eventual lifestyle is presented sans any social awareness, while the possibly less endearing aspects to Aditi’s tiger-mom intensity (which spares neither doctors nor servants) is regarded in simple terms of maternal bravery in former Miss World turned entertainment behemoth Jonas’ glam performance. She endures the torments of hell, yet her makeup remains utter perfection.

It’s a slick, multi-nationally shot movie whose somewhat bland polish on all levels doesn’t much assist the raw pain that should be at this story’s center.

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