DIFF 2014: The Last Adieu

Should a person who was so consumed by his passion for filmmaking and revolution, have married and had children if he had no time to spend with them? Shabnam Sukhdev asks this question of her late father, renowned documentary filmmaker from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Sukhdev Singh Sandhu, in her film The Last Adieu where she retraces her father’s life by talking to his closest friends and colleagues, all the time trying to reconcile her unpleasant memories of him, with his work and ideology.

A front runner in the revolutionary documentary film tradition of India, Sukhdev Singh Sandhu made more than 60 films, addressing issues such as communalism, nationalism, the Bangladesh war etc, turning him into a FIlms Division celebrity, despite the fact that many of his films were critical of the state as well. While he was busy shooting, editing, throwing parties and drinking, his daughter Shabnam lurked in the shadows, trying to catch a glimpse of the man who was her father, who never let her into his world.

This thorny relationship between the father and daughter is the subject of The Last Adieu, a film that complicates the character of Sukhdev rather than celebrating it unquestioningly. Shabnam adds another dimension to her father’s story by asking questions about his personal life, something his friends, colleagues and fans failed to notice. Was it fair that Sukhdev’s wife and daughter suffered at the cost of his film career? Shabnam doesn’t shy away from asking tough questions about her father’s alcoholism and ill-treatment of her mother who nonetheless stood by him till the end.

The film is as much a wonderful biography of an inspiring filmmaker as it is a personal and possibly therapeutic journey for the director to come to terms with her memory of her father. “While making this film I realised just how consuming the filmmaking process is, and if you don’t have a partner who understand this, it can get very difficult for a relationship to survive. I understand my father’s passion and loneliness much better now,” she said after a screening of the film at the recently concluded Dharamshala International Film Festival.

Equally important is the film’s reconstruction, using old photos, videos, interviews and tape recordings, of the life of a cinematic genius who pioneered documentary filmmaking in India. There was no one quite like him when he was making films and definitely no one who shared his passion to want to change the world. In one of the interviews, a friend of Sukhdev’s recounts how he just picked up his camera and left to film the Bangladesh war despite all the dangers to his life. Of course, his family resented him for bolting for months at end in pursuit of a story and this personal corollary to the narrative is what makes The Last Adieu so interesting.

The film begins with her expressing her anger towards her father and slowly, as we watch her speak to the people who populated his life, we notice her inching towards forgiveness and understanding. The Last Adieu is a genuinely heartwarming film that uses the medium of film to bridge the distance that film itself had caused between father and daughter. If she felt her father’s legacy was a burden sometime ago, now she feels proud to be Sukhdev’s daughter. “My priorities however are much clearer than my father’s. To me my children come first,” she said smiling.

The story was published in Newsyaps in November 2014. The website has since shut down.

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