Without warning, there is an accident. Then, a flashback: to ten minutes earlier. A flashback which explains, nearly in realtime, how the accident comes to be. Why, then, did we not directly start from the flashback? Because Vishal said so.
Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest film delights in its own impish, impromptu absurdity. There is much daftness in this oddly titled Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, a cock-and-pink-buffalo story that stays surreal even at its most satirical. It’s theatrical, insightful, wickedly clever and, often, too funny to even laugh at, if you know what I mean. It is also, as may be apparent, an utterly random movie, sometimes jarringly uneven and frequently meandering. And yet it works, because it is, at every single step, unexpected and surprising.
Even the most seemingly slapdash of scenes appears magical when the work of a master is evident. This film swings with two sultans, each spurring the other on toward a sillier spectacle, a sight of grand lunacy. Bhardwaj more than handles his end — heaping on wordplay and quirk and texture — but the Quixote in the other corner is even wilder: Pankaj Kapur, who carries the film with smiles and slurs. Together, this jesting juggalbandi provides a rare treat: a legendary actor rolling up his sleeves and a director giving him miles of room in which to conjure. Forget Matru and Bijlee, in Mandola lies the magic.
Technically, though, the whole film lies in Mandola. It’s set in a fictive Haryana village of the same name, a name it shares with its only wealthy resident, a land-hungry tyrant played by Kapur. And while he squeezes farmers dry by day, a few stiff drinks invariably bring out his inner socialist: it’s a regular Dr Jekyll and Comrade Hyde. A drunken Mandola even leads the oppressed masses to revolt against himself, but isn’t at all amused once he regains his wits.
It is a peculiar universe populated by many a weirdo, and akes a while to settle in. One on hand is Mandola’s canny driver, Matru, (Imran Khan) who indulgently leads his master toward drink, clearly fond of the sloshed socialist within. On the other is Bijli, (Anushka Sharma) the tyrant’s daughter, an over-kohl’d drama queen eager enough to marry into money. There are farmers hunting for Mao to guide them, and sycophantic policemen who collude gladly with a scheming politician (Shabana Azmi). And being set in the laconic state of Haryana, the humour is dryer and flatter than usually seen in a farce: the laughs may not come easy, but it’s hard not to keep grinning.
But it’s not all snorts and chortles. Behind the beguiling buffoonery and unrestrained slapstick lie deeper points, about how barren fields can be more profitable than lush ones, about how politicos justify self-interest by hailing it as another form of altruism, about the way even rain can be co-opted as a farmer’s greatest foe. Why, in one unforgettable moment, glasses are raised and, instead of the often-mispronounced ‘chairs’ for ‘cheers,’ the politician raises her drink with a cry for actual seats of power. ‘Kursiyaan!’
There is much this film says, about Special Economic Zones and the development myth, and with that subject it — with a diametrically different approach — treads on some ground covered by last year’s finest film. When the most important filmmakers of our time concentrate on the same issues, we should be paying attention, too.
We must also heed the language, for there is no Indian filmmaker who uses words as deliberately, pointedly and skilfully as Bhardwaj. An accidental revolutionary, when jeered at, snaps back “ghar mein Mao-Lenin naa hai ke?” instead of bringing up mothers and sisters. Mandola’s profanity sounds coarse but is technically innocent, his most colourful bit of cussing — “uski toh Ma ka papad sadega” — merely sounding dirty. And in one exceptional scene, when Mandola evocatively outlines his vision of farms turning into shopping malls, he kicks things off with brutal lyricism, by saying this dream has been clawing at the back of his eyelids.
There is much detail to cherish, crammed lovingly between the lines. The flighty Bijli, unsure of herself — alternating one minute and direct the next, if I may — is told she has cobwebs inside her. Her father, meanwhile, is a feudal oppressor with his greatest weakness inside him, his moat literally inside his castle. Fateful rain comes from the sky soon after people from an African tribe dance exuberantly around a fire, perhaps inadvertently willing it. And a father shoves his errant daughter ahead of him, as if making her walk the plank.
Bhardwaj’s influence is clear, and, as always, saluted. The brass band in the film is called the Kusturi-ca Brass Band, and while the Serbian master Emir Kusturica is known for his chimerical surrealism, Matru appears simpler and less fluid, perhaps due to its need to adhere to a familiar dramatic narrative. In that Bhardwaj’s film appears closer to one of the loonier Coen Brothers films, or even, ah yes, a PG Wodehouse plot by way of Jim Jarmusch. It would be depressingly bleak if it wasn’t as spontaneously fun.
Imran isn’t ideal but looks the part and manages to get by, and Anushka — while stumbling on some of the stranger lines — is great in a couple of scenes near the climax. Arya Babbar, in a Reggie Mantle like clean-shaven idiot role, is pretty decent and Azmi’s reliably good, especially when armed with a scary soliloquy.
But make no mistake, this is a one-actor show, giving the greatest thespian in our country another delightfully odd space. Pankaj Kapur is the best we’ve had, and — as he hallucinates, as he rouses the people, as he steels himself — this is all a reminder of that. Even the way he gigglingly insists on giving a man who calls himself Mao the bottle with his Left hand.
Laced with both acid and arsenic, Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It takes a while to get into its groove, but changes gears with spectacular finesse after that. And no matter the slight niggles: this is a film that goes far out on a limb, and gives us both bedlam and nuances, enough to warrant repeated viewings. And more than enough to love. Oh boy oh boy indeed.
Rating: 4 stars
First published Rediff, January 11, 2013