The setting of Subhadra Mahajan’s feature debut may be chilly, but the vibes are warm. The aptly titled film revolves around Nia, a depressed young Indian woman who leaves Delhi and escapes to her family’s Himalayan summer retreat in the dead of winter to recover from a trauma. What she experiences there belies both hers and the viewer’s expectations, in a location so icily beautiful that the region may well experience a surge of tourism. A feel-good film in the best sense of the term, Second Chance is receiving its world premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

In the film’s opening moments, we hear a frantic phone call cluing us in to Nia’s turmoil — namely, that she’s taken abortion pills after getting pregnant by a boyfriend who abandoned her and is desperate to keep the secret from her parents. Cut to a shot of Nia (Dheera Johnson, making an impressive film debut) peering at a postcard-worthy view of the majestic Himalayas, which only look more stunning in the film’s monochrome black and white.

Second Chance

The Bottom Line

The scenery isn’t the only beautiful thing about the film.

Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Cast: Dheera Johnson, Thakri Devi, Kanav Thakur, Rajesh Kumar, Ganga Ram, Shaurya Bastola, Tarini Sud
Director-screenwriter: Subhadra Mahajan

1 hour 44 minutes

With the caretaker of the house called away on unexplained business, Nia is left to spend time with his elderly mother-in-law Bhemi (Thakri Devi) and her rambunctious eight-year-old grandson Sunny (Kanav Thakur), who spends much of his time playing Superman. Nia, meanwhile, like any urbanite, wanders around the property desperately searching for a cell phone signal.

Although restless at first, Nia soon settles into her new environment, enjoying Bhemi’s homemade dumplings, participating in batting practice with Sunny, and bonding with a kitten put in her care after it annoyed Bhemi one too many times. She has a reunion with an old boyfriend whom she hasn’t seen in ten years, who picks her up and brings her home to meet his wife. She goes to a party with young locals and enjoys some recreational drugs. And she blissfully practices dance moves alone amid the landscape’s natural beauty.

Writer-director Mahajan proves adept at lulling us with a slow, unhurried pace so that we eventually succumb to the same quieter rhythms as Nia. And instead of taking the easy way out with cheap humor at the expense of the rural characters, she invests them with quiet dignity and no-nonsense wisdom. Particularly delightful are the scenes involving an elderly shepherd (Ganga Ram) who stops by to visit and proves quite a charmer. “Nothing compares to a hot cup of tea!” he exclaims after taking a few sips, before proceeding to lavishly compliment Bhemi on her onion fritters. “If you had not stayed a bachelor, you would have enjoyed such delicacies,” she chides him.

Bhemi, who spends her days working tirelessly, also has a tragic history, as made clear in a scene in which she tells Nia about a heart-wrenching episode involving Sunny’s late mother. And she’s quick to take action, insisting on calling a doctor after Nia starts bleeding profusely as a result of complications from the abortion pills. Later, she calms her by assuring her that the doctor knows how to keep a secret.

Effortlessly blending gentle humor with poignant drama, Second Chance makes us fully identify with its central character as she manages to regain her emotional equilibrium as a result of her interactions with what becomes a new family. We find ourself as surprised by the unexpected development as she is, but between the gorgeous setting and the loveable characters it makes perfect sense.

The thoroughly endearing performances by child actor Thakur and the mature Devi, neither of whom had ever acted before, are a key element, as is Johnson’s affecting turn as Nia. Although, to be sure, none of their work compares to that of the feline Yuki, who completely steals the film.

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