As she approached the end of her life four years ago, Aisha Chaudhary typed some thoughts on her phone as she struggled for breath due to pulmonary fibrosis. For her it was cathartic, a way to find some purpose and meaning. For everyone else who read those notes, she was an inspiration, and My Little Epiphanies was published by Bloomsbury in 2015 – coincidentally and tragically on the day before she died. Aisha was only 18.
Four years later, Shonali Bose has gathered together Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Farhan Akhtar for a film adaptation called The Sky is Pink. The director has form in this area after 2014's Margarita With a Straw, her excellent drama about an Indian teenager with cerebral palsy. But The Sky is Pink is a very different beast to the book. Perhaps with the profile of its leads in mind, this is a romantic film that focuses on the relationship between Aisha's parents Aditi (Chopra Jonas) and Niren (Akhtar) as they meet, fall in love and realise they carry a gene that gives their children a good chance of being born with severe combined immune deficiency. It's already taken their first child, but their son Ishaan (Rohit Suresh Saraf) appears to be OK. Aisha has not been so lucky. She recovers from a bone-marrow transplant as a baby, but the operation leads her to develop pulmonary fibrosis in her teenage years.
The Sky is Pink's narrator is Aisha (Zaira Wasim), who brings the strands of the story together non-sequentially and tells us 10 minutes in that she's dead. "Get over it. It's quite cool actually," she tells her parents from the afterlife. "You'll see when you get here, which you do know you will, right?" The tone tells you all you need to know about the gentle, romcom mood here.
Still, splitting the chronology is clever because it allows Bose to concentrate on how decisive moments echo through the decades. But this structure does, in the end, cause problems, because its running time of more than two hours means The Sky is Pink is far too long to maintain the audience's interest in the story of how a relationship copes (or doesn't) with extreme circumstances.
For example, there's a quiet moment of reflection in the immediate aftermath of Aisha's death. It's almost a relief that there hasn't been an overwrought end-of-life scene; there's a lot of sentimentality and plaintive music heavily signposting how we should be feeling. But then the "family gathered around the deathbed" scene actually arrives a while later. It's well handled, but there's a nagging feeling after about 90 minutes that there's still a significant amount of extraneous detail to wade through before we'll reach a resolution that has already become obvious.
And it does feel as though there is another film here battling to get out, a Hindi take on Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, perhaps. Certainly Wasim (in her last film, apparently) has enough sass and dry wit about her to make her character's short time on Earth feel inspirational, while the real-life snippet of Aisha's TedX speech on being happy and living in the moment at the end of the film gives both the screenwriting and Wasim's performance a new credibility.
But in The Sky is Pink, Aisha seems to be inspirational to everyone but the family itself, who generally look a bit sad and argue about the best treatment for her. When Aditi is admitted to – in the script's words – a "mental hospital", it's probably the least convincing moment of the whole film when it should have been its climax. Caring for sick children is mentally and physically exhausting yet Chopra Jonas looks as slick and composed as ever. Her executive-producer role might be to answer for that.
Perhaps we're being too exacting on a film that Chopra Jonas says "will surprise the audience in its representation of love in all its forms". It's warm, funny in places and has a few dance numbers, while Chopra Jonas is convincing as Aisha's mother over the piece. The catch in Akhtar's voice when he has to go on radio in London and beg for money to treat his daughter is quite something, too.
In fact, the London scenes are reminiscent of Richard Curtis's best films (Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually) and when the emotional scenes are handled well, it's genuinely moving. The scene in which Niren and Ishaan are weeping, holding each other in a small bed, gets right to the heart of grief without recourse to words.
If only there could be more of this nuance. But it's still a film that celebrates the incredible effect a thoughtful teenage girl had on her family and the wider world. In that sense, it's a qualified success.
The Sky is Pink is in theatres across the UAE from Thursday, October 10