‘Second Chance’ Review: A Soothing Mantra of Himalayan Hope and Healing

It’s hard to get a cellphone signal up in the high mountains of Himachal Pradesh, in Northern India. Especially in the dead of winter when deep snowdrifts absorb all sound and jagged encircling ridges form an impenetrably icy barrier. But without WiFi coverage, Subhadra Mahajan’s spectacular and serene “Second Chance” suggests, a different, deeper kind of connection is possible — to these stark, unearthly landscapes, to the people who’ve made their lives among them, and perhaps even to the self you might have lost touch with through trauma or tiredness, down in the busy, noisy world below.

Twenty-five-year-old Nia (Dheera Johnson) is feeling estranged from herself when she takes refuge here. In a startling juxtaposition, Mahajan cuts from a black screen over which audio of an anguished voicemail plays to Nia gazing out over a stunning black-and-white vista of mountain crags riisng up from a frozen valley basin. Having taken abortion pills — a secret she’s desperate to keep from her parents — Nia, queasy and lonely after her boyfriend’s abandonment, has come to her family’s summer home in the Pir Panjal mountain range to recuperate, knowing that winter is setting in and no one will be here but the caretaker Raju (Rajesh Kumar) and his family. Soon, Raju is called away and Nia is left in the care of his 70-year-old mother-in-law, Bhemi (outstanding non-professional Thakra Devi, whom one could watch forever as she performs even the most mundane task), and his rambunctious 8-year-old son Sunny (a delightful Kanav Thakur).

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At first, it is a bit worrisome that there is little interrogation of the rigid social codes by which Bhemi and Sunny call the privileged Nia “Miss” and essentially wait on her, sending her endless trays of painstakingly prepared food that Nia pushes away without eating a bite. But the days pass, the temperature drops and the atmosphere paradoxically warms. It’s not that the unspoken hierarchy is directly challenged; it simply thaws to irrelevance as Bhemi and Sunny become less factotums than family, especially after Nia and Sunny bond over an outrageously sweet kitten. Grandmother and grandson do not help Nia because they are employed to do so. They do it because they are kind, and because they are aware that she is in distress and they, despite the hardships of their remote and demanding way of life, are not.

DP Swapnil Suhas Sonawane’s monochrome photography is breathtaking in the best way: elegant without overtly imposing its artistry on already beautiful settings. And just like Nia herself, Mahajan’s tender, airy screenplay benefits from time spent away from the consideration of her trauma, when in lovely, graceful scenes of domesticity and humor, we follow Sunny playing or Bhemi cooking. Bhemi even has a little flirtation going with a twinkly-eyed local shepherd (Ganga Ram) who is unstinting in his praise of her fine-spun yarn and her delicious onion fritters, and with whom her conversations range from light joshing to more profound observations on the way their natural environment is changing.

“Our Mother Earth is depleted and sad,” says the shepherd wistfully. “If we continue to destroy her like this, it will be the end of us all.”

“Well, at least you’ve lived your life long enough,” replies Bhemi tartly.

This is a remarkably accomplished debut feature, premiering in Karlovy Vary’s Proxima competition just a couple of months after Mahajan’s compatriot, Payal Kapadia, won the Grand Prix in Cannes for “All We Imagine as Light.” It may be too early to declare these two new female Indian filmmakers the vanguard of a movement, but their movies do share a certain, wise-beyond-their-years poetry. It’s exemplified in a wonderful moment in “Second Chance,” when Nia, horrified to find Bhemi doing the dishes under an outdoor tap in subzero weather is gently pranked into thinking the water is hot.

A few of the more effortfully dramatized moments, such as an awkward visit Nia pays to a recently married ex, or a confrontation with the guy who got her pregnant, are tentative and slightly stilted. But these exchanges are brief and their theatricality only serves to highlight the ease of the film’s natural register, which is murmured and grateful as an answered prayer. Up here, in the quiet, Mahajan’s film tells of a space where, if you need them, there are not just second chances, but second or third ones — infinite chances that stretch like snow-capped Himalayan peaks, as far as the eye can see.

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