In “Mohalla Assi”, a group of men sits around a decrepit tea shop and argue endlessly. They ramble on about secularism, politics, leftist ideology - and everything else under the sun. This forms an important motif in the film. But much like these men, Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s political satire never quite gets to the point.
Based on the Hindi novel “Kashi Ka Assi”, the film is centered around the holy city of Benares (or Varanasi), especially the area around one of its holy ghats (riverbank).
Dharamnath Pandey (Sunny Deol) sits on this crowded ghat as one of many holy priests performing rituals and educating students in Sanskrit. He also watches his beloved city slowly losing the values he holds dear.
He finds non-vegetarians living in his “pure brahmin” street, foreigners swarming all over the holy city and his faith getting commercialised. Set in the years between 1988 and 1998 when India witnessed economic liberalisation as well as religious polarisation, Pandey and the residents of Mohalla Assi are witness to these tectonic changes in the city they love, but Dwivedi fails to give us a true sense of what the changes entail.
The narrative is choppy and all over the place – the story moves from the tea shop to Pandey’s house and his arguments with his wife, and back to the rambling old men discussing politics over tea - with no coherence. Cliches abound (the clueless foreigner, unscrupulous tourist guides, etc), and at 120 minutes, the film feels laboured.
Pandey is shown to be the upholder of Brahmin pride - he even goes on “kar seva” (religious service) to Ayodhya, the birthplace of Hindu god Ram. But we never see this aspect of his personality beyond a couple of scenes. Benares is shown to be at the centre of rising right-wing politics, but even that theme is half-baked. It’s almost like Dwivedi, like an incompetent photographer, couldn’t decide what to focus on. The end result is a blurred picture.
Sunny Deol, not known for being the most expressive of actors, seems to have gone into his shell even more for this film, appearing almost static in some scenes. Sakshi Tanwar, who plays his wife, is the opposite, appearing over-animated in scenes that don’t require it. Only Ravi Kishen seems to be having fun with his role as a tourist guide.
This is an old film, mired in court cases and released almost four years after it was made. But in its treatment and style, it feels even more dated and obsolete.