The star of “The Sky Is Pink” is dead long before the film’s opening credits even roll. A lengthy disclaimer at the start of Shonali Bose’s film doesn’t obscure the truth, noting that the “film is based on the detailed narrations by Mrs. Aditi Chaudhary on the life of her daughter Ms. Aisha Chaudhary (deceased).” Soon enough, actress Zaira Wasim, who plays Aisha as a teenager, cuts in to narrate, flitting between diatribes about her parents’ sex life (yes, she knows that’s weird) and cheeky asides about her current deceased state. “Oh, and by the way, I’m dead,” she quips. “Get over it!”
While Bose’s disclaimer also hastens to add that the film “not a documentary,” it is — somewhat improbably enough, given its unique tone — based on a true story. In 2011, teenager Aisha garnered a fair bit of fame from public speaking gigs in which she offered both inspiration and honesty about a life that had been marked by illness since her birth. Bose was all but hand-picked by the real-life Aisha who, per the film’s official press notes, told her parents she very much wanted to see Bose’s previous film “Margarita with a Straw.” She died two weeks later, before she could see the feature, also about a young girl with a debilitating disease.
A rare (if not always successful) depiction of grief that attempts to find the humor and heart in even the worst of situations, “The Sky Is Pink” is about both Aisha’s death and the vibrant life she participated in while she was on Earth. But it’s principally centered on the relationship between her parents. Initially, such a focus seems like a strange ask (this is, after all, a movie about an extraordinary teenager who died too young), until it’s revealed exactly why Aditi (a revelatory Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and Niren’s (Farhan Akhtar) romance is so unique (and what that all has to do with Aisha’s diagnosis).
Set over the course of nearly 30 years, Bose makes excellent use of flashbacks and flash-forwards to examine the full breadth of Aisha’s life, including the years both before her birth (and her parents’ fizzy romance, pulled right out of a Bollywood script, complete with a bombastic dance sequence) and the months following her death at age 18. Mostly, though, the film is divided into segments dramatizing her touch-and-go early months and the final years of her life, absent of a middle that appears to have been relatively drama-free. With her third feature, Bose attempts to thread a tricky needle, as Wasim’s spunky narration makes light of heartbreaking moments, before plunging more directly into the inherent despair that permeates the film.
A whimsical score from Bollywood composer Pritam (just one of many nods to the popular Indian film industry tucked inside the feature) makes it feel light, but it also obscures what’s to come: a diagnosis of a rare genetic disorder for adorable infant Aisha that will impact every inch of the family’s lives. It’s a hard enough pill to swallow, but the reveal that the Chaudharys have been through this before stings more, as Bose tries to make the case that such familial trauma doesn’t necessarily have to spawn the bleakness audiences are used to seeing in films about cute kids dying young.
Credit Wasim for pushing through some of the tougher elements of Bose’s ambitious treatment of the material, crafting a fully realized teenage Aisha before we even meet her. She’s all funny asides and wise-cracking jokes, reminding us how silly it is to be sad when she (again, dead) is so happy and capable of satisfying reflection about her short time on Earth. While the film’s first half boasts universally strong performances (even baby Aisha turns in a wonderful performance), it’s Chopra Jonas who emerges as the film’s driving force, a tough-talking mama bear that Aisha lovingly calls Moose. (Her father is Panda, her brother Giraffe, more whimsy that sounds hammy on paper but that actually works in execution.)
It’s Moose who keeps the family together as everything falls apart. Chopra Jonas keeps her firepower going throughout the film’s rickety, montage-heavy second half, which picks up over a decade after Aisha’s original diagnosis and a series of treatments that saved her young life (for a time, at least). Finally realizing that they can’t save Aisha, the family embarks on a series of Make-a-Wish-like excursions, cheesy outings that feel ripped from another, less creative film. In the face of Chopra Jonas’ extraordinary turn, other performances fall away, including both Akhtar’s reliable work as a heartbroken dad and Rohit Saraf as a teenage Giraffe (AKA Ishaan), who manages to make off with a single moving sequence but otherwise operates as something of a footnote.
Most disappointing, however, is the long-awaited introduction of Wasim in the flesh. While the actress’ bubbly narration guides “The Sky Is Pink” through its rockiest moments and biggest stretches, when she finally appears as teenage Aisha, she’s somehow less fully realized than when she was simply operating as voiceover. As the film struggles to find its balance between joy (moments in which Aisha is allowed to be simply be a surly teen are magnetic) and the inevitable tragedy (Bose stages a wrenching bedside farewell, but can’t let it live on its own merits), Aisha herself is unable to capture the spark that oriented the earlier parts of the film.
Early on, a distraught Aditi attempts to comfort a young Ishaan after he’s scolded for an elementary school drawing in which the sky is colored pink. Desperate to find a little magic in an increasingly cruel world, Aditi tells her son that his sky can be any color he wants it to be, no matter what other people say. It’s an emotional lesson, not a thoughtful one, and a piece of advice that pushes Ishaan (and the audience) to see things how he’d like to, even if that means putting on rose-colored glasses.
RSVP will release “The Sky Is Pink” in theaters on Friday, October 11.