A stationary stretch limo parked on a desolate farmland revs up and drives right through a ramshackle liquor kiosk, bringing the structure down in a mangled heap. The owner flees and two men – the car driver and his inebriated master – ransack the shop and make off with as many bottles of a local brew as the vehicle can hold.
That – the opening sequence of Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola – sets the tone for the rest of the film. It is a wild, wacky, wicked satire that carries the unmistakable Vishal Bhardwaj signature. But it leaves you with mixed feelings.
It isn’t a big, bloated blockbuster wannabe. It has its daring share of moments that defy popular expectations.
It is a spirited comedy that has its heart in the right place. It has something to say about what is going on in this country in the guise of a skewed development model in which farmers thirst for electricity to irrigate their land while humongous shopping malls a few kilometers away glitter all day long.
Unfortunately, Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola is a bit like the micro light two-seater that one of the three eponymous characters, driven by drunken bravado, decides to pilot. Sure enough, it crash lands because his flying wherewithal is limited to getting the aircraft airborne – he has no idea how to bring it back to terra firma.
Bhardwaj’s first all-out comedy faces pretty much the same plight. It soars and hits the high gears with aplomb, but does so only occasionally. The eventual landing resembles a nosedive more than anything else. If not an outright wreck, the result isn’t always a pretty sight.
Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola is Bhardwaj’s most political film to date. It tackles the sombre theme of political corruption and capitalist greed against the backdrop of a small Haryana village fighting to save its arable land from being acquired for a proposed special economic zone.
But much of the political posturing that the script is built around is at best superficial and unsurprising. The humour is laboured at times and the potshots the film aims at a system that thrives on unbridled abuse of power and pelf is often rather feeble.
Despite the uneven quality of the ambitious narrative, Bhardwaj packs in just about enough quirky energy to make Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola generally watchable.
The film blends the freewheeling air of a nukkad natak with structured elements of Shakespearean drama and epic Greek theatre to deliver a surreal tale that borders on burlesque.
Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola is marked by an adventurous streak that is commendable: Bhardwaj pushes the goofy storytelling style all the way through to the bitter end. It is another matter that the strategy boomerangs frequently.
The characters and their wayward ways are only mildly interesting. A pink buffalo haunts Harry ‘Moneybag’ Mandola (Pankaj Kapur) when he is sober. It strays into his bedroom, plonks itself beside him and flashes a grin.
The cranky old man turns into a socialist with a bleeding heart when he is high. Mandola even leads a protest march against himself only to suffer an abrupt change of heart when dawn breaks and his hangover subsides.
Set up against him is a rustic incarnation of Mao, a man the villagers have never seen. In apparent absentia, he spearheads the agitation against the conspiracy to forcibly acquire fertile agricultural land.
Mandola’s sidekick, Hukum Singh Matru (Imran Khan), is a JNU-educated son of the soil who takes up cudgels on behalf of the long-suffering peasants when he is allowed a long enough rope by his crotchety employer.
Mandola’s daughter, Bijlee (Anushka Sharma) – we see her for the first time emerging suggestively from a pond as hordes of villagers sit around watching the spectacle – is a bit of a temperamental termagant given to mood swings.
Bijlee is engaged to the buffoon-like son (Arya Babbar) of a Chaudhary Devi (Shabana Azmi), a powerful politician who is desperate to make a fast buck by fast tracking Mandola’s plans to set up a factory in the village. And Bijlee’s hemming and hawing is a pretext for a love triangle that ends with a messy wedding.
The red rag on which the shadowy Mao writes his agitprop edicts is contrasted with the colour pink that suffuses the film. The desi daru that Mandola consumes is called Gulabo and is sold in a pink bottle. Sadly, the splash of colours does not seep deep enough to make a lasting impact.
Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola is hurt the most by the erratic performances of the lead actors. Imran Khan and Anushka Sharma, playing villagers who have been educated in the big city, are anything but consistent with the Haryanvi patois and accent.
Pankaj Kapur is the pivot of the film. However, his character is over-wrought, if not over the top.
The actor pushes himself as far as he can within the limitations imposed on him by the screenplay, but this performance of his is unlikely to rank among his best.
There are moments when Kapur is delightfully droll, but he often lapses into the unintelligible, especially when Mandola sinks into a drunken stupor.
Shabana Azmi is saddled with what is almost a walk-on part. There isn’t much she can do to add value to the mix.
Be that as it may, I would still recommend Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola.
Few filmmakers in Mumbai engage with ideas and issues of contemporary relevance as felicitously as Bhardwaj. He might have fallen short this time around, but even when he is not at his best, he is infinitely better than most in the business. A director who does not fear failure merits our support.