Director: Vishal Bharadwaj
Indian express rating: **
In the run-up to its release, I was quizzed on `Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola’. A lot. What kind of name is that? What does it mean? And I put on a quizzical expression and shrugged. With Vishal Bharadwaj, you never know. Anything is possible, particularly when the film has a most unusual, triple- barreled monicker, constructed to intrigue.
Half-way into the film, I was still trying to figure, because nothing about it till then suggested a signature Bharadwaj film. The setting is very him : small town, North India, shifting for this one from his favorite hot-spots in western UP to a Haryana small-town. But the tone is new for him: he’s gone folksy-serio-bizarre here with seriously mixed results. Pre-interval, it is a meander, with a bunch of characters wandering around in search of a story, and situations meant to induce hilarity which fall flat. Post which, fortunately for him, and us, he discovers the ‘sur’ he’s been aiming for, and ‘Matru’, wherein you can actually see some of the theatre turning appropriately absurd.
Come, meet his characters. Matru (Khan) is a strapping Jat lad, handlebar mooch, aviator glasses , fat Bullet fatfati between his thighs. Mandola (Kapur) is a heavyweight land-cum-haveli owner, who loves the bottle more than anything else, and whose blood-shot eyes lead him to oddly- coloured four-legged animals . And Bijlee (Sharma) is his pretty daughter, about to be affianced to a power-hungry female politician’s (Azmi) hanger-on-of-a-son (Babbar).
This bunch is at odds with each other, but they find themselves arrayed on the sides they ought be finally (that’s about the time when the parts start coming together). Till then we get the strangest mish-mash of villagers-under-attack whose only savior is a fellow-in-a-red-mask calling himself Mao (yes, the Big Chief Commie revolutionary), who helps launch Operation Mao Mao (or Mow, Mow : you choose). This is meant to stave off a takeover of the fields, and prevent the fertile patches from turning into industrial wastelands. And from turning a young girl into barter between two greedy individuals. By the time we twig on, much dead time has elapsed.
Once the director gets to the point, we realize it’s a very meat-and-potatoes kind of story, the most meat-and-potatoes Bharadwaj has been, despite the weird contrivances he includes in the telling of it. The conflict is the familiar poor `kisaan’ vs rapacious overlords, and true love vs forced alliances, and how education save our souls, shot through in some parts with the sort of VB flourish that make his films such delights. But he makes us wait for the good bits, does Bharadwaj, and by then we’ve nearly fallen asleep.
So here’s what I did like. Shabana Azmi as the neta-with-nuts outshines everyone else, as she goes about charming the old, constantly-sauced widower Mandola, and then showing her claws. She knows what she wants, and will not stop at anything. The other younger woman also has a couple of nice moments : Sharma’s sassy young girl is sassier in a slightly manic manner (the last time we saw her, she was this bikinied-babe diving into icy lake waters to entice a bearded army man into rescuing her, wanting us to believe that she was just a journalist doing her job; here she emerges from a dirty pond surrounded by bovine creatures). Pankaj Kapur comes into his own only after mumbling his way through the first half, and gets to have the last word. Actually two: Pancho, Pancho.
Those words are a joke you will have to work to decipher. As also the Haryanvi accents which are decidedly and uniformly faux. And the mystery of the pink buffaloes. What was that again? Is the revolution really upon us? The film passed me by in the first hour. It enticed me back again in the second half. But not enough to make me forget the inert prologue, which is minus drama, which is Bhardawaj’s true forte. Iss Matru aur uski Bijlee se mann kam dola.