Shyam Benegal films often explore broad social themes through a closely focused lens, in detailed studies of relationships among a handful of people. Mandi ("market") is broader in scope, featuring a large number of characters whose relationships form an intricate web in which concepts like loyalty, morality, and duplicity are tangled. A wry film with a healthy dose of black comedy, Mandi presents a sarcastic look at the tension between venerable but questionable traditions and modernity in its various forms.
Rukmini bai (Shabana Azmi) is a madam who runs her brothel with a stern and demanding hand. Aided by her melancholy houseboy Dhungrus (Naseeruddin Shah), Rukmini is protective of her girls, especially the brothel's virginal prize, Zeenat (Smita Patil), who is permitted to spend her days practicing her music and kathak instead of submitting to the kotha's more lascivious customers. When a sanctimonious moralist, Shanti Devi (Gita Siddharth), flexes her political muscle in an attempt to drive the brothel out of town, Rukmini turns to her landlord Mr. Gupta (Kulbushan Kharbanda) for assistance, but finds in him only a conditional ally. Caught in the crossfire is the town's mayor, Agrawal (Saeed Jaffrey), who is under the powerful Shanti Devi's thumb but also beholden to Rukmini, lest she air his own dirty laundry. Rounding out the vast network of players is a terrified mute girl (Sreela Majumdar) married under pretext and sold by her new husband to Rukmini; a dirty-minded photographer (Om Puri) who prowls around trying to snap naked pictures of the tawaifs; a police-wala who does his "night duty" at the brothel; Agrawal's son, engaged to Gupta's daughter but madly in love with Zeenat; Shanti Devi's beleaguered assistant (Pankaj Kapur); a crazed and pious hermit (Amrish Puri) who shows Rukmini how to extract wishes from a variety of holy objects; and all the girls of the brothel (including Soni Razdan and Ila Arun), with their varying levels of satisfaction and loyalty to Rukmini.
That's an awful lot to squeeze into a film, and the squeezing does, to some degree, compress Benegal's characters into two dimensions. The outstanding talent of the cast offers some compensation, though, allowing each character to be vividly rendered despite the tendency toward archetypy. The darkly comic tone of the entire film enhances the vividness of the characterizations. Without it, the film would collapse under the weight of its themes. Delivering the tale with archness, teetering on the brink of tumbling over the top, allows the actors a breadth of expression that helps them pop out of the screen. Amrish Puri's bug-eyed ascetic, Saeed Jaffrey's nervously buffoonish aristocrat, Naseeruddin Shah's droopy drunk - each plays to the back of the house in a departure from Benegal's usual hyper-realist style, yet the broad style is precisely what renders each of them memorable.
Shabana Azmi's turn is the broadest of them all, and her performance is deliciously physical and yet still evoactively subtle. Rukmini flits between angry snarls and obsequious smiles at a moment's notice, one minute dripping with maternal concern and the next barking orders like a foreman. And she cannot resist a mirror, interrupting herself often, whether mid-tirade, mid-sob, or even mid-prayer, to smooth a stray strand of hair. If there is an overarching mood to the changeable Rukmini, it's that she never for a moment displays an ounce of sincerity. Indeed, most of the characters in Mandi are somehow scheming, double-crossing, or working both sides against the middle. From the brothel girls whose loyalty to Rukmini is fragile and fleeting, to Zeenat who is not nearly as ingenuous as she seems, and even to the pompous Shanti Devi who (we learn from a throw-away line of Rukmini's) is having an affair with her own son-in-law, each of the characters is concealing a card or two. And it is this ubiquitous duplicity that gives Mandi its entertaining edge - it's hard not to laugh watching these colorful characters squirm, hedge, and lie through their teeth.
Mandi's final scene is a little bit puzzling, but the ultimate message may be that degradation is in the eye of the beholder, and that perhaps the concealed hypocrisy of those who call themselves modern and upright is just as oppressive as the ancient traditions of the kotha. Whatever the true moral of this amorality tale may be, though, it is a terrific film.