Clever political satires are rare in Indian cinema. Even political dramas hardly come by, considering the threat of some random person or group taking offence to the “similarity” of plot to real events or portrayal of a real character on screen; for ours is fast becoming a conditional democracy – applicable only to the ruling class. Our collective ability to be able to confront our deficiencies and shortcomings head-on and laugh at our idiosyncrasies is at an all-time low. And at such a time, master of story-telling, Vishal Bhardwaj brings us a crazy and wickedly-humourous story that tells us exactly where we are going wrong in building a credible collective identity.
The capitalist in this tale from the hinterland sways between conscious greed and unconscious philanthropy – just how we suspect every money-minting rich man suffocates and kills the goodness inside him to be able to sleep peacefully at night. It is only a seasoned veteran like Pankaj Kapoor who could play the whimsical and unpredictable Harry Matru and still elicit an affection from the audience. It is easy, otherwise, to reduce this character to a caricature. Mandola is aware and somewhat ashamed of his compromise with his morals, and his victory over this ethical dilemma in the end to arrive at a win-win deal with the working class is what his episode with the gulabi bhains is all about.
The politician, as always, has a goal. But the achievement of this goal involves personal progress too, as explained perfectly by a crafty minister. Shabana Azmi plays Chaudhari Devi, a scheming character and as wicked as her witch in her earlier collaboration with Bhardwaj, Makdee. The scion is ambitious, but an airhead (Arya Babbar) in awe of his mother and following her instructions to the ‘T’, but unintentionally going slightly off the mark on every occasion. The very vocal comparison of this dimwit with our political legacy holders elicited loud hoots, guffaws and lots of clapping in the theatre.
Then comes the symbolic leader of the masses masquerading as the everyday man (Imran Khan as Matru). His intentions are noble and what he lacks for in terms of material resources, he makes up for with his proximity to power and his ability to influence it. Even in the face of adversity, he leads the people well enough to follow a faceless leader – a belief system – to get what they all want. But this also shows the unquestioning faith we, the public, show in anyone who claims to be able to get us justice. But that’s that. We stop applying our own brains and do not move an inch without the leader’s permission.
Anushka Sharma‘s character links all the others at another level, providing the layer to this story that we see first from the top. It is only on the peeling of these layers one by one that we get to the part that explain the deeper allusions that Bhardwaj has tried to make in the story, like the gulabi bhains.
There are some lovely moments in the film and some cheeky digs at the current administrative powers and the issues plaguing us. Commie bastards, bourgeois bitches, the buffalo that keeps saying “Mao” and left association, smart telecom scam reference in song, land acquisition, farmer loans, Zulu folk dancers — all have a story to tell about the current confused Indian identity. Azmi’s theatrical monologue about politics is nothing short of brilliant. Khan and Sharma try hard to blend in but the veterans unintentionally and by no fault of theirs overshadow them. Babbar cracks you up, but it is hard to know if it is because he is actually good, or if he is playing himself. Kapoor is the man, though. Take him out of this film, and it is sure to fall flat on its face.
The film loses pace in the second half and gropes about to hold on to the plot-line faithfully. In spite of that, it manages to create quite an impression. It may not appeal on a large scale, making it to the 100-crore club (I will be more than happy to eat my words if it does), or even be a big hit. But it is an important film for reintroducing satire in Bollywood, and with some semblance of class. Having said all that, it still isn’t up to the mark of a “Vishal Bhardwaj masterpiece.”