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A pale pink satire

Pink is the colour of the Gulabi Gang, of the panties we once sent to the Sri Ram Sene bigot Pramod Muthalik. Of Aerosmith, breast cancer awareness, Marrakech and Jaipur. It can be a colour of passionate causes and fierce emotions. In Vishal Bhardwaj’s new film Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola, the colour is a crucial—and quirky—appendage to the visual scheme. However, pink loses its punch here, lingering more as the colour of candyfloss.

The director, who has co-written the screenplay with Abhishek Chaubey, uses pink hues to visualize the spells of bovine hallucinations that his protagonist serially experiences, and on the label of a fictional Haryanvi beer called Gulabo.

These delightful conceits are ultimately redundant, because in storytelling, in its politics and in characterization, Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola is supine and wishy-washy, never really taking flight or springing any surprise.

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Show stealer: Kapur’s character oscillates between the clinically evil and the foolishly loving.

Contradictions drive the story—a bipolar and alcoholic millionaire and the artless, guileless poor; the evil SEZ-eyeing Delhi politician and the idealistic mass leader known as, who would but guess, Mao; a heroine who takes a dip in the local pond of this Haryana village called Mandola wearing a ganji (a vest) and a pair of hot pants, surrounded, of course, by gawking men; and a hero so politically correct that he can’t question his imperious boss.

Bhardwaj answers the raging question of our century—does unbridled capitalism alienate the poor?—in a naive and lyrical good-against-evil stroke. The deceitful millionaire exclaims why the last thing he needs in his life is “the Maoists". The politician’s son imports a Zulu troupe (“buys" them) for his fiancée. These scenes have satirical purpose, but Bhardwaj’s execution of the details is flippant and awkward—he is on shaky ground with political satire.

Satire and black humour tell the most intensely political of stories—stories that often mirror the ideologues behind them. The works of Emir Kusturica, the Serbian film-maker from Drvengrad, or the Czech master of satire Jirí Menzel, seamlessly merge absurdity with satire. Bhardwaj’s template in Matru... is derivative of this tradition, but his narrative is far from seamless.

Bhardwaj is a gifted musician, at best a singer of broken hearts and the dreams of petty crooks, an orchestrator of visual poetry perhaps—the music in Matru... is remarkably good—but he does not filter politics or economics with confidence. An ode to capitalist greed, by a man drunk on the possibilities of industrial glitz, set against evocative imagery of factories and malls, sounds farcical because the writer has missed the nuances of the very idea of progress he is trying to tackle.

The story actually sounds good on paper. We meet Harry Mandola (Pankaj Kapur), the millionaire, in an inebriated state with his Man Friday Matru (Imran Khan) driving a limo into a liquor shop stationed in dusty nowheresville because they are refused more Gulabo, the local pink beer. Harry vacillates between being a champion of the poor, a sentimental fool when slurring and tottering, and a ruthless abuser of wealth and power when sober. Matru is mysterious and deadpan; he lets Mandola drink as much as he wants. Bijlee (Anushka Sharma), Harry’s daughter, is a hearty, blustering woman with disdain for patriarchy. She is ready to marry Baadal (Arya Babbar), the son of Chaudhari Devi (Shabana Azmi), who uses her power over Harry to usurp the village farmlands for a mammoth SEZ. Matru and Bijlee share an unspoken love, and Mandola and Bijlee share a burden of personal loss and bitterness.

The first hour is mostly exposition, with enticing visual details. The drunk man is cool, so is his daughter. They have no hope of redemption. The second half becomes a sort of morality tale, more in the vein of mainstream Bollywood. The enemies get defined, and the virtuous and the immoral become transparent.

Kapur’s performance is the show stealer, oscillating between the clinically evil and the foolishly loving. But it is still not an inventive performance, considering the only two sides the character has. Harry’s life has no revealing moments or sinewy details. The role is incidentally akin to a stage performance which Kapur delivered while he was at the National School of Drama, of Puntila, in Bertolt Brecht’s play Mr Puntila And His Man Matti (the skeletons of both stories are identical).

Khan is flat and insipid, appearing woefully mismatched to the Macbeth-reading Jat, Matru. His performance has no consistency and is one of the weakest things in the film. Sharma has some of the most engaging moments on screen—the defiant, talkative north Indian woman, estrogen on steroids. You can’t keep her down. Azmi, as always, is dependable. It is interesting to see her play a character whose beliefs are the exact moral antithesis of her professed real-life beliefs. As an actor, she devours the character’s evil.

Its ambition to reach out to the big picture derails Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola. In overreaching, Bhardwaj ends up underplaying his characters. You feel little for them. When a story tries too hard, you can’t laugh or marvel at it; you forget it.

Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola released in theatres on Friday.

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