Paa. Director: R. Balakrishnan. Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan, and Vidya Balan. Length: 90 mins.
One of Bollywood’s endearing qualities is that its movies – even the most vacuous and inane – generally include a sumptuous betrothal and/or wedding celebration. You have just not seen, in terms of color, movement, or sheer ebullience, a sumptuous wedding until you’ve seen one Bollywood-style.
Paa is quite a stunning departure from what one might expect from an Indian film, however. Oh, it has its wedding celebration, too, but the context is highly challenging for a culture with strict, complex marriage traditions. The bride-to-be of this film has borne her son out of wedlock and has been raising him herself for the past 12 years. A traditional Hindu will be very uncomfortable, if not scandalized, by such a situation.
To make matters worse, the son of this illicit union has a severe and rare genetic disorder, progeria, that ages a person prematurely and shortens his lifespan considerably. In some Indian communities, such a child might well have been abandoned at birth and certainly would be kept hidden from the public eye.
The final blow in this arrangement is that the young father had, in the first flush of discovery, made it quite clear to his pregnant lover that an abortion would “make the problem go away.” He had big, idealistic plans for his life; she had big plans for her life. There was no room for a baby just then.
The movie challenges that premise, however. This unwed mother keeps her child, becomes a gynecologist, loves her disabled son deeply, and provides him an enviable education among extraordinarily kind children and teachers. This deformed child, Auro – who is brilliantly played by one of India’s most revered actors, Amitabh Bachchan – is charming, witty, and ultimately the salvation of his parents. This boorishly self-centered young man – played by Amitabh Bachchan’s own son – not only comes to regret his mistake but finds fatherhood (paa means “father”) and his true love in the process.
It’s a wonderful film. There is no preaching or prudishness. Auro dubs his grandma “Bum” when he first learns to speak and this irreverent joke is enjoyed for the rest of the movie, along with silly potty humor and an embarrassing discussion about bastards. Neither lionized nor degraded, his personality is portrayed realistically, with all its idiosyncratic, sensitive, and highly intelligent facets.
Yet the moral – that even a deformed, bastard child whose life is short and difficult has worth – is obvious. How impoverished his parents’ lives would have been without him; how impoverished we, the fortunate audience of such a movie, would have been without him.
The pro-life message doesn’t get clearer than that!
Paa can be watching streaming on Netflix.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the author of the four volume 'Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing Among Religious Bodies.'