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Himalayan Hope and Healing: A Soothing Mantra

At the top of the world, a young woman at her lowest ebb finds solace in simplicity, friendship, and the sweet purring of a kitten in Indian writer-director Subhadra Mahajan’s gorgeously restorative debut.

It’s hard to get a cellphone signal in Himachal Pradesh’s high mountains. During winter, deep snowdrifts absorb all sound, while jagged peaks form an icy barrier. However, without WiFi, Subhadra Mahajan’s “Second Chance” suggests a deeper kind of connection is possible—one to these stark landscapes, to the people who live here, and even to the lost parts of oneself.

25-year-old Nia (Dheera Johnson) feels estranged from herself when she seeks refuge in these mountains. A harrowing voicemail leads to a stunning black-and-white vista of mountain crags rearing up from a frozen valley. Nia has taken abortion pills, a secret she keeps from her parents. Feeling lonely and abandoned after her boyfriend leaves, she comes to her family’s summer home, knowing only the caretaker Raju (Rajesh Kumar) and his family will be there.

When Raju is called away, Nia ends up in the care of his 70-year-old mother-in-law Bhemi (outstanding non-professional Thakra Devi) and his eight-year-old son Sunny (a delightful Kanav Thakur).

At first, the strict social codes are worrisome. Bhemi and Sunny call Nia “Miss” and wait on her, sending endless trays of meticulously prepared food that Nia doesn’t touch. But as days pass and the temperature drops, the atmosphere warms up. The unspoken hierarchy thaws as Bhemi and Sunny become less like servants and more like family. They bond over an outrageously sweet kitten they dub Supercat. Bhemi and Sunny help not because they are employed to, but because they are kind and aware of Nia’s distress.

DP Swapnil Suhas Sonawane’s monochrome photography captures the breathtaking beauty of the setting without imposing on it. Mahajan’s tender screenplay benefits from moments away from trauma, focusing on lovely domestic scenes. We follow Sunny playing or Bhemi cooking, gathering firewood, and winding wool. Bhemi even flirts with a local shepherd (Ganga Ram), who praises her fine-spun yarn and onion fritters. Their conversations range from light-hearted to profound, discussing the changing natural environment.

Mahajan’s debut, premiering at Karlovy Vary’s Proxima competition, arrives a few months after Payal Kapadia’s Grand Prix win at Cannes. Although it may be early to declare a new movement of female Indian filmmakers, their films share a wise, poetic quality. A wonderful moment in “Second Chance” reveals this when Nia, horrified that Bhemi is washing dishes under a subzero tap, is gently pranked into thinking the water is hot. She tests it and recoils, “It’s freezing!” Bhemi chuckles, “If I keep telling myself that, how will I get all these dishes done?”

A few dramatized moments, such as a visit to a recently married ex or a confrontation with the father of her unborn child, feel slightly stilted. However, these brief exchanges highlight the natural ease of the film’s true register. In the quiet of the mountains, Mahajan’s film tells of a space where endless chances for renewal stretch like snow-capped Himalayan peaks, as far as the eye can see.

Source: Variety