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Grappling with grief: on films that dwell on the loss of a loved one


Finding parallels between reel and real life, with films like ‘Amour’, ‘The Father’, and ‘Blackbird’ that dwell on the loss of a loved one

I used to be a huge cynic of any day earmarked for a particular topic with a well-practiced line — why do you need a day to celebrate women when they should be celebrated every single day, for example. But, having lost my father recently, June 20, Father’s Day, is suddenly full of meaning for me.

Many movies are rooted in reality and for those who have opted for a career surrounded by cinema, one finds parallels between reel and real life. A few years ago, I began watching Michael Haneke’s extremely moving portrayal of old age, the Cannes, BAFTA and Oscar winning Amour (2012). My own parents were at that time relatively spry, recovering from a quadruple bypass and a double knee-surgery respectively. Even so, I found it quite difficult to watch and couldn’t help thinking about them.

More recently, when I watched Anthony Hopkins’ magisterial and heart-rending performance in The Father, which deservedly won him the best actor BAFTA and Oscar amongst numerous other accolades, my thoughts immediately turned to my then increasingly frail father. I remember speaking to my friends who have elderly parents and cautioning them about the extreme emotional response the film would provoke in them.

Different people have different ways of dealing with grief, but the truth is, there is no way at all to deal with it. The loss hits you like a sledgehammer and you can only hope that the wound becomes numb over time. As a perverse exercise in coping, I cast my mind over films that deal with grief and was surprised at the sheer number of them. Many of them are maudlin and saccharin, but several are celebratory.

Grappling with grief: on films that dwell on the loss of a loved one

– Top of mind was Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) where a bureaucrat, after a lifetime of pushing papers, decides to make a difference when he finds out he has terminal cancer.

A still from ‘Blackbird’

– In Chris Kelly’s Other People (2016), a writer returns home to care for his dying mother, while in Roger Michell’s Blackbird (2019), a remake of the Danish film Silent Heart (2014), Susan Sarandon, a terminally ill mother, brings together her entire family one last time.

– A film dealing more directly with bereavement is Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993) where Juliette Binoche’s character must cope with the deaths of her husband and child.

A still from ‘Big Fish’

– Specifically on fathers, in Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003), Albert Finney is on his deathbed and his son Ewan McGregor must decipher if the tall tales his father used to spin are true or not. For the young or the young at heart, the ultimate pieces of work about the passing of a parent are perhaps The Lion King musical and films.

A still from ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’

– And in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) a son searches for clues about his father, who passed during the 9/11 attacks.

Beginning with the death of Irrfan Khan in 2020, the last year or so has forced me to write many obituaries, but nothing shattered me more than placing my father’s obituary (written by my sister) in The Hindu. May he rest in peace.

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