The setting of Subhadra Mahajan’s feature debut may be chilly, but the atmosphere is warm. The aptly titled film centers on Nia, a depressed young Indian woman who leaves Delhi and flees to her family’s summer home in the Himalayas in the dead of winter to recover from a trauma. What she experiences there exceeds both her own and the viewer’s expectations, in a location so icy beautiful that the region could well experience an increase in tourism. A feel-good film in the best sense of the word, Second chance will have its world premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

In the film’s opening moments, we hear a frantic phone call that fills us in on Nia’s turmoil — namely, that she’s taken abortion pills after becoming pregnant by a boyfriend who abandoned her and is desperate to keep the secret from her parents. There’s a shot of Nia (Dheera Johnson, making an impressive feature film debut) gazing out at a postcard-worthy vista of the majestic Himalayas, made all the more stunning in the film’s monochrome black-and-white.

Second chance

It comes down to

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

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

1 hour 44 minutes

With the house caretaker called away for unexplained business, Nia is forced to spend time with his elderly mother-in-law Bhemi (Thakri Devi) and her boisterous eight-year-old grandson Sunny (Kanav Thakur), who spends much of his time playing Superman. Meanwhile, like any other city dweller, Nia wanders the grounds, desperately searching for a mobile signal.

Although Nia is restless at first, she quickly adjusts to her new surroundings, enjoying Bhemi’s homemade dumplings, joining Sunny for batting practice, and bonding with a kitten entrusted to her care after it irritates Bhemi too many times. She reunites with an old friend she hasn’t seen in ten years, who picks her up and takes her home to meet his wife. She goes to a party with young locals and indulges in some recreational drugs. And she happily practices dance moves alone amid the natural beauty of the landscape.

Writer-director Mahajan proves adept at lulling us to sleep with a slow, unhurried pace, so that we eventually succumb to the same gentler rhythms as Nia. And rather than taking the easy way out with cheap humor at the expense of her rural characters, she invests them in quiet dignity and no-nonsense wisdom. Particularly delightful are the scenes with an elderly shepherd (Ganga Ram) who comes to visit and proves to be a real charmer. “Nothing compares to a cup of hot tea!” he exclaims after a few sips, before complimenting Bhemi profusely on her onion fritters. “If you hadn’t remained a bachelor, you would have enjoyed such delicacies,” she chides him.

Bhemi, who spends her days working tirelessly, also has a tragic past, as is evident in a scene where she tells Nia about a heartbreaking episode involving Sunny’s late mother. And she takes quick action, insisting on calling a doctor after Nia starts bleeding heavily due to complications from the abortion pills. She later calms her down by assuring her that the doctor knows how to keep a secret.

Effortlessly combining gentle humor with gripping drama, Second chance allows us to fully identify with the main character as she manages to regain her emotional balance as a result of her interactions with what becomes a new family. We are as surprised by the unexpected development as she is, but between the beautiful setting and the endearing characters, it makes perfect sense.

The very endearing performances of child actor Thakur and the adult Devi, neither of whom had acted before, are a key element, as is Johnson’s moving turn as Nia. Although, to be fair, neither of their work can match that of the feline Yuki, who completely steals the film.