मटरू की बिजली का मंडोला
Dir. Vishal Bhardwaj
If Vishal Bhardwaj's 7 khoon maaf is a creepy fun house at a sinister carnival, his Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola is a visit to a surrealist circus. Trippy, touching, and uproariously funny, this movie sparkles and dances and enchants. It is a sweet story of redemption, a biting political satire, and a magical romp all rolled into one crazy film. It is wild, brilliant, and great fun.
The narrative at the core of Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola is a potentially heavy one: A crorepati industrialist, Mandola (Pankaj Kapur) schemes with the chief minister of Haryana (Shabana Azmi) to buy out, for a pittance, the farmers of the village that bears his name, so that he can develop a lucrative factory-mall complex on their land. A mysterious figure calling himself after Mao Tse-Tung galvanizes and supports the villagers to fight back and preserve their livelihood. Without the otherworldly, yet humanistic, levity that effervesces through Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola, this could be the stuff of a Prakash Jha film. But Vishal Bhardwaj paints on a different kind of canvas here.
Mandola is a man divided against himself. When sober, he is hard and calculating, willing even to use his own daughter, Bijlee (Anushka Sharma), as a pawn to advance his schemes, including marrying her off to the chief minister's idiot of a son (Arya Babbar). When Mandola is drunk, though - as he is much of the time - he sympathizes with the farmers and undermines is own business interestes. He enlists an overqualified servant, Matru (Imran Khan) to watch over him. But Matru's own motives are murky and his loyalties do not exactly lie where Mandola thinks.
This story is embedded in a matrix of the absurd that brings it to life with joyful giddiness. The movie careens from pink buffaloes to dung-slinging trebuchets to swarming bees to a drunken midnight joyride in a flaming airplane. A troupe of African dancers and an itinerant wedding band are among the disparate elements that shimmer in and out of Bhardwaj's magically unreal yet palpably dusty world. Thrown into the mix is some very clever skewering of the press, the police, and the machinery of politics that is part Peepli Live, part Welcome to Sajjanpur, and all Vishal Bhardwaj.
While invoking many established filmi conventions - such as a "yeh shaadi nahin ho sakti" type of climax - Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola turns others on their head. In one sequence, the rains come to the agrarian village - but contrary to convention, the rain is not a cause for village-wide rejoicing. It's after the harvest, and the deluge threatens to destroy the stored grain that the farmers need to sell to keep their land. Mandola, the chief minister, and their cadre of corrupt officials dance in the downpour like film stars, while the villagers scramble to protect their livelihood.
For all its rich, rangy pleasures, Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola is not without a few warts. The characterizations are at times inconsistent, especially around Bijlee; her strengths are a bit unclear, and her relationship with Mandola a touch underdeveloped. But these are minor quibbles in a movie that utterly enthralls and delights while it is happening. (Other reviewers have complained that it sags in the middle; that could not have been further from this reviewer's experience.) The relationship between Matru and Mandola is as touching as it is dysfunctional, and often hilarious and sweet as they drunkenly navigate the world together. In one brilliant scene they crash into a well on a motorcycle and, deciding the well's location is a dangerous, attempt to move it by dragging it by the rope that suspends its bucket. United in this nonsensical and futile task, Matru and Mandola bond in the shared absurdity.
The movie is propelled through the madness by the performances of its actors. Pankaj Kapur owns the film; Mandola is as loveably unloveable, as much the selfish softy, as his meanyhead in Bhardwaj's The Blue Umbrella. Shabana Azmi delivers deliciously even as she chews the scenery with relish. She has vastly too much fun as the long-suffering embodiment of manipulative evil, rolling her eyes as she strains to tolerate the buffoonery of her pawns, her son and Mandola. I could watch Shabana Azmi all day long in roles like this one, a distillation and magnification of the character she developed for Loins of Punjab Presents. Imran Khan does not emote much behind his fetching beard, but he is adequate to the demands that Matru's bizarre world places on him. Even Anushka Sharma - who had better show some range soon if she is to live up to the promise of Band baaja baaraat - restrains the over-bubbliness here, and turns in a solid, reasonably grounded effort.
Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola has been receiving widely mixed reviews, and I went in with some trepidation, unsure what to expect. But I came out grinning, utterly delighted with a film I can't wait to see again and confirmation of the storytelling genius of Vishal Bhardwaj. The weaknesses will fade in memory, and all that will remain are the many pleasures, the reality of the ridiculous, the splendid satire, and the lingering laughs. I'll stand by my gushing here because it is an honest response to a movie I enjoyed every moment of. Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola is simply a wonderful and unusual piece of cinematic art.