The lyrics of one of the tracks, “Seedhe saadhe log ade kae, doodh dahi ka khana” captures the essence and imagery of how a community is viewed by outsiders and created by insiders. Why do we watch films? For entertainment, to re-live experiences/fantasies, to satiate desires/urges of kinds. Vishal Bhardwaj has already been established among the league of directors known for their creativity, inventory, and to bring new-ness cinematically with every project. Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola seems to be an attempt to create a graffiti of Haryanvi community with bouts of entertainment unconventionally.
Bhardwaj is known to bring the best out of his actors and for his brilliant knack of the particularities of a society he works with. Though the archaic style of narration makes it a bit impossible to chase the storyline but the treatment of space works realistically. The characters in the film are commercially crafted but are well thought out. Pankaj Kapur is the USP of the film, not just because he has exceptionally imbibed the character of Mandola (who is a landlord in the day, and a soft communist at night after 42 pegs), also because he is pleasing to watch. The dream of being an industrialist, his indulgence with alcohol, his metamorphosis into a soft communist in the night is just brilliantly portrayed. The hallucinations of a pink buffalo in respect to his withdrawl symptoms not for a moment look caricatured.
The other characters revolve around him but some have been able to make a dent independently, especially Arya Babbar was surprisingly amusing as a dumb-witted, obedient, rich kid of a power hungry politician played by Shabana Azmi. Anushka Sharma is disappointing except for her uninhibited dancing skills in the title track which unfortunately pops at the end of the film. Shabana Azmi is a big disappointment except for a monologue about “yeh desh ki pragati ki baat hai” attached some relevance to her character despite her poor acting. The marriage sequence where Bijli walks for the ceremony drunk in her bridal clothes is worth mentioning here. Bhardwaj brings out the latent discontent and misery of an urban-educated, obedient daughter of a beloved father who helplessly hooks her up with the son of the politician without much of her consent. The latent desires of a woman placed in a rural setting despite her credentials of education and modern sensibilities oozes out for a moment before they are diffused by the climax when everything falls in place like a happy ending Bollywood film. It’s worse because Mandola himself asks Matru (the communist, who plays phantom Mao for villagers) to marry his daughter. Unreal!
A society like Haryana known for its aggressive masculinities, genealogical myths and talibanic morality has been treated with the playfulness of wit and humor. The underlying tones of development paradigm and the changing socio-economic everydayness of villages due to the changing politics of land lurk in the background of the film with not much evidence. He lets the characters play the field rather than serving the plot of the film.
The communist angle of the film lacks any sort of substance except for the interesting encounter between Imraan Khan (who plays a JNU passed out, passive revolutionary) and his bourgeois friend, working in corporate sector. Any other actor than junior Khan would have done justice to the role of playing a driver of Mandola in the village and simultaneously the phantom Mao-tse-tung for village farmers. The nukkad natak style ambience generated to mobilize the villagers to bring a rebellion didn’t work out well and it was completely out of sync with rest of the narration.
He hasn’t tried to explore anything with rigour but also he can’t be rejected for superficiality except for the character of Bijli. Even though he tried to set her up to make it commercial, it speaks of the structural limitation of a Bollywood film to not have been completed without some skin posing by the actress. The character of Bijli has been outdone to an extent that it becomes reductionist to have a female protagonist. I am reminded of my own experience in a filed trip to a district in Haryana where dhoti-wallas and some goons gathered at the sight of me buying cigarettes from a shop. The presence of Africans in the movie is very disturbing; it stands outside of wit completely to create humor out of purchasing the members of Zulu tribe community by the fiancé to please Bijli (Played by Anushka Sharma).
Bhardwaj’s intervention interests one because of the non-essentialized treatment of the Haryanvi community and non-linearity of the script. The local rootedness of the character is a treat for the audience and of course his grip on the dialect of Haryana which makes it a real entertainment.
The comic ambience is unconventionally tied to the socio-economic issues with not much evidence but reverberating undertones. The purpose of the film isn’t to destabilize any mindsets or clichés, Bhardwaj is too lazy to take that up here. May be he tried reveling within the existing paradigms to open a whole myriad of possibilities of humor and excitement for an otherwise male, stardom-centric Bollywood cinema. His indulgence with space works out well for me here.
The unpredictability of the author makes him not just an interesting director to observe who belies expectations of film critics. He has proved again to be someone who can’t be tamed in categories except for the perpetual conceptual excitement he stimulates with every project. He takes his audience seriously and one can’t expect spoon feeding from someone who respects his audiences. I give him 4 out of 5 for his attempt to experiment with a society like Haryana which has been unexplored so far and lading it with humor and not essentializing the polarities and existential dilemmas of a community.
About the Author
Anjali Chahal is a Research Scholar from Delhi University where her research deals with a khap panchayats and the politics of honour. She is also working as a UTA in Dept of Political Science, DU