You know it’s a bad omen when a scene in a Vishal Bhardwaj movie reminds you of one in Shirish Kunder’s last film. I felt the dread creep up on me as I watched a scene where a breathless reporter reports a UFO sighting in an Indian village -- reminding me of a similar scene in “Joker”, a film that ranked as one of the worst of 2012.
Thankfully, that was the only UFO scene in the film, but there was one which involved cow dung being flung across fields, as well as a long-drawn-out scene where two men try to pull a bucket out of a well.
If all this is making you wary, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Bhardwaj’s film starts off funny and his trademark style is evident -- from the brilliant “cigarette smoking is injurious to health” message at the beginning to the Tarantino-esque first scene.
Bhardwaj takes on the touchy issue of farm land being taken over to expand India’s cities and make way for retail and commercial space, but he chooses to tell the story through a cast of decidedly oddball characters.
Harry Mandola is a rich man (how he got rich and what his day job is, we are never told) who wants to turn his village into a concrete jungle so that he can get even richer. One way of doing this is converting agricultural land into barren land, at least on paper, and for that Mandola has the backing of the state’s chief minister, simply referred to as Deviji (a delightfully demented performance by Shabana Azmi). Mandola promises to marry his only daughter Bijlee (Anushka Sharma) to the Deviji’s son Baadal (Arya Babbar) to seal the deal.
All would have gone on smoothly if it hadn’t been for Mandola’s nasty drinking habit. After another of his drinking sprees, Mandola barges in on a meeting of farmers, who are discussing how they can save their land, and urges them to revolt -- against him. He instructs his right-hand man Matru (Imran Khan) to lead the revolt. Of course, when the alcohol wears off, Mandola realises that he’s become his own worst enemy.
The villagers, now emboldened, ramp up their protests, helped by a mysterious entity who calls himself Mao and writes letters to them on red fabric. There are several great ideas in there somewhere and you would expect a film-maker of Bhardwaj’s calibre to flesh those out easily, but unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. The director does the unthinkable -- he simplifies the issue and the farmer’s problems seem trivial.
You don’t have to look too far to see Bhardwaj’s inspiration -- a band in the film is called the Kusturi-ca Band (probably after Serbian film-maker Emir Kusturica, known for his absurdist cinema), but Bhardwaj doesn’t manage to take the madness all the way, getting caught up in a boring love story. The theatre of the absurd can be funny and engaging if it goes all the way. Half measures mean that the film begins to look a little sad and embarrassing in the second half.
There are some inspired moments, like Shabana Azmi’s slightly crazed act, and the Mao references, but in trying to add a commercial angle, Bhardwaj goes for a love story between Bijlee and Matru. What starts out as an interesting film disintegrates, and leaves you bored.
There too many coincidences and convenient plot twists and the end will leave you anything but satisfied. The other big handicap is that Bhardwaj’s leading man just isn’t up to it. Imran Khan goes red in the face trying to muster up a Haryanvi accent and act tough. You can actually see the effort in his acting and that’s why it jars all the more.
The star of the film is undoubtedly Pankaj Kapur. As Mandola, he is quirky, feisty and energetic and overshadows both young actors with the sheer energy he brings to the screen. Azmi gives him a run for his money, playing a deliciously evil character. I wish her exit had been written better though.
“Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola” is a disappointing film, one that could have been so much more.