Thursday, October 21, 2021
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Seniors Steal the Show at Oscars 2021

Indeed they did. Nomadland walked away with top honours. It’s a film about a woman in her 60s who loses all in the Great Recession, and then lives as a nomad. It won the Best Picture award and also the Best Actress honour for Frances Mcdormand, 63. Eighty-three-year-old Anthony Hopkins bagged Best Actor for The Father, and Youn Yuh-jung, 73, was Best Supporting Actress for Minari.

Anthony Hopkins at 83, becomes the oldest actor to win an Oscar this year, for his role as a dementia patient in Florian Zeller’s The Father, based on his stage play, which also won for Best Adapted Screenplay.  (Theatre audiences would remember Naseeruddin Shah playing the tough role in the Indian version of the play).

However, the Academy Awards this year seem to have inadvertently become the Year of the Senior Citizen, as the Best Actress trophy went to 63-year-old Frances McDormand (her third), for Nomadland, that also won Best Picture and Best Director (Chloe Zhao). The Best Supporting Actress award was won by 73-year-old Yuh-Jung Youn for Minari, making her the first Korean actress to win an Academy Award.

Obviously the three films have seniors at their centre, and deal with issues that have been affecting an aging population in a youth-obsessed culture.

The character named Anthony in The Father, suffers from age-related memory loss, and as the film progresses, the audiences see that his life is a terrifying blend of reality, imagination, hallucination and confusion that leads to a heart-rending break-down in the end. Though in the film, his daughter (the magnificent Olivia Colman, who was nominated, but lost to Yuh-Jung Youn) looks after him as best as she can, but eventually cannot put her life on hold for her father who, many a time, cannot even recognize her.  

 Nomadland, based on a non-fiction book, by Jessica Bruder, titled Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, looks at another modern-day demographic—the population of the elderly, who either have no families, or have children unable or unwilling to look after them. For many of them, after retirement and paying off mortgages, finances are precarious. As a result, they sell their homes and belongings to live in their trailers or vans, an itinerant existence, like gypsies on wheels. They travel from place to place, taking up seasonal jobs. The protagonist of Zhao’s film is Fern, who loses her husband and then her job when the gypsum mine that employed most of the town of Empire, shuts down during the 2011 recession.

 Fern finds employment at an Amazon Fulfilment Centre that gives her enough money to keep going for a while. It is a fact that Amazon hires retired people and camper’s part-time jobs, offering decent money and facilities to those able to work at jobs like packing, gift-wrapping and cleaning in their massive warehouses.

 When the assignment is over, Fern parks at a camping ground where she meets a lot of people like herself—as she says, “houseless but not homeless–” and they share experiences, skills or things they no longer need. In the film most of these characters have been played by real people and it is sad to see so many senior citizens, living a grueling, risky and mostly lonely nomadic existence, but there is also the joy of making friends and forming a community of like-minded travellers. The life is harsh but also incredibly liberating, so much so that Fern finds herself unable to settle down, even when she has a chance.

 Minari, (directed by Lee Isaac Chung), also nominated for Best Picture, tells a story that would be somewhat familiar to Indians (and Asians).  Yuh-Jung Youn plays Soonja, who is brought to the US by her daughter, to help look after her two children, while her husband and she struggle to make ends meet.  For the American-born kids, particularly the little boy, angry at being forced to share a room with the old woman, she is not the cookie-baking grandmother of the society they have been exposed to. 

 Like many Indian grandmothers, expected to fly out to foreign lands to care for their grandkids, Soonja’s comfort is not of much concern to her family, too busy making a living. The old woman is relentlessly loving, caring and cheerful, even though she must be lost and lonely living in the middle of nowhere in her son-in-law’s mobile home. Soonja becomes the cause of a crisis that ends up as a catalyst for saving the family on the brink of collapse.

 Even though every country and culture tackles the problems of the elderly in its own way, there is something common between the growing community of the aged.  If The Father is every senior’s nightmare, Minari is a reality for many, and Nomadland seems like a fantasy.  Hope and social bonding is the key—whether it is offered by family or the kindness of strangers.

Deepa Gahlot
Deepa Gahlot is one of India’s seniormost and best-known entertainment journalists. A National Award-winning fim critic and author of several books on film and theatre, she has had an extremely successful run as head of theatre and film at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, during which she helped nurture several original productions.

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