Cinema

Distorted vision

Print edition : February 22, 2013

Pankaj Kapur (right) as Harry Mandola and Imran Khan as his serf Matru. Photo: by special arrangement

Director Vishal Bharadwaj. An absence of cinematic language is the problem with his latest film. Photo: AFP

A poster of 'Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola'. Photo: by special arrangement

The farcical Hindi comedy Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola is a terrible attempt to Indianise Bertolt Brecht.

FORTY-EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Vi-shal Bhardwaj is regarded as the great hope of commercial Hindi cinema today. He has what it takes to succeed in Mumbai where the fantasies of the great Indian people are manufactured on a daily basis in a film industry that purports to court reality only to distort and falsify it with great cunning.

Bhardwaj’s latest venture as director is Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, a film with a most catchy title, an excellent set of actors and technicians, and a most misleading story. It is an unacknowledged adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s masterly satire Herr Puntila And His Man Matti. It is best that Brecht is not dragged into the story as the film is a terrible distortion of his play and its central idea.

Matru Ki Bijlee... starts off on a heady, farcical note with Harry Mandola (Pankaj Kapur), a business tycoon with a dual personality, and his valet (actually serf), Matru (Imran Khan), trying to get a bottle of country liquor called “Gulabo” from a licensed shop in the middle of crop-laden fields. When advised by the unseen shop attendant that it is a “dry day”, the master-servant duo drive into the shop, which is in reality a shack, to wreak havoc. The attendant runs for his life; bottles are duly salvaged and loaded into the car, which is then driven away. As the two “make water” standing side by side in the twilight and idly converse, the viewer is informed that Mandola has retained Matru in lieu of an unpaid loan of Rs.1.5 lakh taken by the latter’s father. Not an uncommon situation in 21st century rural India.

This is the first attempt by Bhardwaj and his co-script writer Abhishek Chaubey to “Indianise” Brecht. The film gallops along for 150 minutes pretending to be one thing and being another.

The locations, the people and their language are strongly suggestive of Haryana, but in reality it is Gujarat; the director thanks Gujarat Tourism in the credits. The choice of the Gujarat countryside as the location and a deranged multi-millionaire as its focal point has other reverberations, but of that later. Let us stick closely to the film and its intentions for the moment. The short, bearded, bleary-eyed Mandola owns almost all the land in the village of Mandola. A huge billboard amidst fields teeming with seasonal crop announces the presence of his construction company and his head-to-toe “portrait” in the foreground carries the required menace. Bhardwaj makes his point clearly through this succinct visual. This is one of the rare cinematic moments in the film, despite the razzmatazz with the camera and, in a couple of places, with special effects.

The strange, somewhat charming and sentimental, relationship between Mandola and Matru is brought out in an early scene where villagers demonstrate against the landlord. The demonstrators are led by Matru and Mandola in pseudo-disguise—it is a little difficult to believe that the villagers do not recognise him—and the gaggle comes to a halt at the gates of the tycoon’s palatial residence. Mandola, as he slips through the gate in the evening light, tells Matru conspiratorially, “I’ll go in from the back, change, and come out quickly as myself. You as the leader place their demands before me and I’ll readily accept!”

Matru, however, is an educated serf. He tells Bijlee, his love, towards the end of the film that he would go and teach at Delhi University, though he is never shown as much as reading a book, leave alone a serious book. This presumably is in deference to the majority who regard books as a nuisance, save for textbooks, which are a necessary evil. Matru in fact masquerades as the hidden peasant leader Mao—a bit of a travesty as far as the real Mao Zedong is concerned—and exhorts the villagers of Mandola to take on the evil Harry who, in cahoots with the powerful politician Chaudhri Devi (Shabana Azmi), plans to turn the large village landholdings into a special economic zone, or SEZ.

Chaudhri Devi is also Harry Mandola’s secret lover; she wants to seal her relationship with him by marrying off her clownish scoundrel of a son Baadal (Aryan Babbar) to Bijlee (Anoushka Sharma), Mandola’s spoilt, beautiful and good-hearted daughter. Baadal shows his love for Bijlee by bringing to her a bunch of Zulu dancers, who greet her with some vigorous, spirited dancing. Baadal tells Bijlee: “These are Zulu dancers from [South] Africa. My friend sold them to me but they don’t know that they have been sold!” Baadal’s sense of humour is that of the ruling class in developing countries. But the issue at hand is slave trade in the 21st century. Bhardwaj, of course, has brought/ bought the Zulus to provide comic relief but not of the Brechtian kind, to bring about “distanciation”.

Matru goes about rousing the villagers through his speeches; they carry Red Banners and mouth “Red” slogans. In reality, they are terrified of Harry Mandola, as they ought to be, in accordance with the aesthetics of commercial Hindi cinema. He is after all their benevolent, protective father, no matter whether he sells them down the river or not! There is also this going back and forth between the Establishment (Mandola and Chaudhri Devi) and the villagers over compensation. This may possibly have been done to recall Nandigram and Singur. The political machinations are a bit too much in the face. There is, however, a matter-of-fact quality to the way the industrialist-politician nexus uses the police and the administration for its own ends. Although the film ends on a note of (false) hope, the invincibility of the state, which is in the hands of unscrupulous villains, is quietly stated many times over in the film.

There is the scene the day after Mandola’s two-seater aircraft crashes at night. The night scene is staged with Hollywood expertise and comparable special effects, but its aftermath is politically telling. A blind boy wearing dark glasses tells the gathered television crew from various channels that he had gone the previous night to relieve himself in the fields and had been there for two hours because the chicken curry he had eaten had not agreed with him! He had heard a great explosion. A television journalist introduces the boy to the viewers as the only person to have seen an unidentified flying object (UFO). The boy, interrupting the journalist, takes off his glasses and tells him that he must be daft to expect a blind person to have seen anything, leave alone a flying object, at night. Officials standing nearby provide the punch line, in a theatrical aside, by declaring that policemen had worked all night to erase any trace of Mandola’s plane crash. Incidentally, Mandola and Matru had parachuted out to help the story continue.

Bijlee is in love with Matru and wants him as both lover and husband. Mandola suffers from acute withdrawal symptoms each time he stops drinking and hallucinates that he has seen a red buffalo. It is actually pink! A visit to a psychiatrist hardly helps Mandola save for the fact that he has an “arrangement” with the doctor’s wife. Chaudhri Devi wants her son to marry Bijlee right away so that her business plans and political ambitions can be realised. Baadal discovers Bijlee kissing Matru passionately by a secluded indoor water pool. He runs to mother with the information. She smiles indulgently and tells him like any politically savvy mother to go ahead and marry Bijlee; after all, she says, anything can happen after the marriage, thus hinting at doing away with Bijlee if necessary. Chaudhri Devi wants to make an indissoluble pact with Mandola so that the SEZ comes through right away.

Bijlee turns up drunk for the wedding. Her father, pretending to be inebriated, creates a ruckus; when Mandola realises that his daughter loves Matru, he stops the wedding, drives away Chaudhri Devi, promises not to covet village land and gives Bijlee’s hand in marriage to Matru, who is wary that Mandola might order an honour killing. Mandola then proves that he has really given up drinking by showing the villagers that the bottle of ‘Gulabo’ he has been waving about has an unbroken seal! Everybody lives happily ever after following Mandola’s sudden transformation into a man of ethics.

False narrative

The film is shot in the thoroughly competent, decorative style of Hollywood. A comic night scene in the fields where Matru alias Mao is supposed to be hiding in the plentiful crop is technically well executed with villagers using medieval-style slings to first dump cow dung and then stones on Baadal and the police who are helping him locate and finish off Matru/Mao. The operation ends in a farcical failure for Baadal and his gang. The acting is thoroughly professional with Pankaj Kapur as Mandola excelling the others; it is only a slight variation of his role as Herr Puntila years ago in a Hindustani adaptation of Brecht’s same play, titled Chopra Kamal Naukar Jamal, when he was at the National School of Drama, New Delhi. There is raucous singing and riotous dancing throughout, perhaps to maintain the tempo of the narrative, which is at the core false. No capitalist will court financial and political disaster by having a change of heart. He may adopt a softer strategy with future power gains in mind.

Commercial Hindi cinema, no matter the kind of revolutionary garb it dons, in the end upholds the status quo. The master showman Raj Kapoor, when asked why the Hindi film industry, almost to the man, had supported Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Congress government during the Emergency in 1975-77, replied, “Whether Congress or Janata, we are always pro-government.” The Janata Party had taken over the reins of power from the Congress after the national elections. There is no reason to believe that the political attitude of the Hindi film industry has changed since. If Vishal Bhardwaj is asked about his political moorings, he may candidly declare that he has none. Nevertheless, what claims a film makes on its behalf is influenced by the social and political climate of its time. Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola is no exception.

The direction a film takes, aesthetic and ideological, is entirely upon its maker. One does not know of Bhardwaj’s educational and hence political background. He was a student of Hindu College, Delhi, at a time when the Students’ Federation of India was dominating student politics in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi; Congress-backed National Students Union of India (NSUI) prevailed for much of the time in Delhi University when Bhardwaj was a student there.

Whether the socio-political climate of his student days influenced him at all is a moot point. His earlier films Maqbool (a promising effort) and Omkara (jaded, despite the hype) reveal a home-grown nihilism. He does not seem to be interested in the mechanics of politics or in its related sociology or for that matter psychology. The driving force behind these films seems to be their potential to make money at the box office because of the novel subject matter. Maqbool, based onWilliam Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, was his first attempt at understanding the mind of a gangland boss of north Indian origin by examining his private life. Earlier Hindi films of this genre, despite their commercial success, were too much on the surface.

Omkara, supposedly an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, set in the badlands of western Uttar Pradesh, lacked substance despite the foul language used and the “tough guy” stance of its characters. It was accurate in its depiction of a violent social milieu in the sense a newsreel is accurate. The film lacked a grasp of cinematic craft and a moral/ethical purpose.

An absence of cinematic language is the problem with Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola. It is made like an old Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) poster play, including a curtain call at the end, with the entire cast dancing to a song from the film in bright sunlight, with agricultural fields on either side of the frame. The film is really a diversion, rather than a vision of a dangerous man in a troubled world.

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