Thursday, 14 March 2013

Matru, Bijlee and Bhardwaj’s nautanki

Vishal Bhardwaj's new film "Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola" (MKBKM) revolves around two main themes – a young woman called Bijlee and the land of her village. It is a quirky film with some great funny moments, that touches lightly on the rush for the land grab and "development" in India through an unconvincing love story between a JNUwala and an Oxford returned girl who likes singing rural songs in Haryanvi.

I enjoyed watching MKBKM because of its tongue in cheek and playful way of looking at serious and not-so-serious issues.

Though not unsympathetic to its female characters, the film has a very male gaze at life. It is a film full of male characters who all like to ogle at Bijlee while she goes around in the village wearing hot pants (and even play acts Raquel Welsh in the Bond movie from 1970s, coming out of water like a nymph, with an admiring and applauding crowd like the cricket match in Lagaan. Even an occasional ghunghat covered women stops to look at her.)

Since the film is based in the land of female foeticide and khap-panchayats, its all male lineup of actors makes sense. Like all self-respecting Indian patriarchists, it also has a female chief-minister, around whom they wag their tails.

Main characters of the film

All the charactors of this film are a little inconsistent. They can be charming and fun in one scene, serious and brooding in another and villanous in another. Though all are competent and some are very good actors, its gives the film an air of serious play-acting, as if a group of friends gathered for a party, have decided to act out the different roles for an evening.

Hukum Singh or Matru (Imran Khan) is the bidi-smoking, local-liquor drinking and card playing JNUwala guy who believes in small revolutions. He is not a real communist, in the sense that he does not really hate the class-enemy, oppressor-of-the-poor local zamindaar-cum-industrialist Mandola (or his daughter), he just manipulates him by getting him drunk. His goal of revolution is not to change the system but only to make sure that the farmers' land is not taken away for making SEZ for a Gurgaon-like town full of malls and high rise buildings.

Farmers themselves are more realistic, willing to negotiate the right price to sell their land rather than singing "Mera Bharat Mahaan lives in the villages", but then our revolutionary hero, like all self-respecting maoists, knows what is best for them and does not believe in democratic decision-making.

Matru has his ex-JNU friends-turned-traitors to “the cause”, who work for big multi-nationals, but don't mind smoking bidis and talking with nostalgia about the good old revolutionary student days (it clearly tarnishes the revolutionary reputation of JNU, for which JNUwallas could have asked for a ban on this movie).

Matru also has a hidden life, where he re-reads dog-eared old books in the darkness of the night. It is hidden because he is never shown reading anything, except when he borrows the Shakespeare book from Bijlee. We see a glimpse of this hidden life, when Matru feels that he has failed in his revolution and packs his old battered suitcase with these books, presumably for going somewhere else for another revolution.

Yet a revolutionary or not, when our Bijlee bats her pretty eyelashes at him, he can't do anything except to accept his destiny of being a hero and kiss the heroine. He does try, weakly, to safeguard his ideals and refuse marriage to the rich industrialist's daughter because "I am a servant", but fortunately, the director decides that it is time to end the film, so no body listens to him.

Harphool Singh Mandola or Harry or Mr. Mandola (Pankaj Kapoor) must have read Suketu Mehta's "Extreme city", so he mumbles something that sounds like "bhenchod" in every sentence. He is also Mr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, and his change of personality is induced by alcohol, preferably a country liquor called Gulabo, that comes in what looks like a beer bottle and has the logo of a pink coloured cow. When he is sober, mostly in the mornings, he is a cold-hearted, calculating industrialist, who dreams of buying the farmers' land and making the Gurgaon-like Mandola Town. However, he is also a closet JNUwalla maoist, and this part of his personality comes out in the night, when he drinks and shouts slogans against cold-hearted enemy of the villagers.

It is difficult for him to give up drinking, because there is no AA branch in Mandola and also because Matru makes sure that temptations are always there around him. When he does try to give up drinking, he has delirium tremens, during which he hallucinates about pink-coloured cows. You can wonder why he does not get delirium tremens in the mornings when he plays nasty-screw-you-all industrialist, but that is besides the point. The prosperous looking doctor’s wife (Navneet Nishan), dressed in pink tights, takes those pink cows in his hallucinations as a reference to her figure.

His world revolves around Bijlee, but he is willing to get her married to the silly son of the chief minister, just to make the right alliance, that will make him more powerful and rich.

Badal (Arya Babbar) the chief minister's son, is supposed to be stupid and a villain, someone who does not understand the finer points of life. Yet, he is stupid only when it suits the script.

I loved this guy, because to show-off his love for Bijlee, he brings her a group of Zulu dancers from South Africa on a 30 years lease.

These African dancers, looking as strange in the Haryana village, as any of those white blonds and redheads who dance as high-class extras in Hindi films, are at least different as they are dark-skinned and their dance is very African. May be Vishal Bhardwaj wanted to pull the legs of some Hindi directors who have European girls to play the role of traditional Indian woman (recently a film even had a Ms.UK playing a Kerala girl because “she suited the role”).

There are other scenes where Badal comes out as a person who understands the need to manipulate and to use people, hardly the signs of a well-meaning stupid-rich guy that people like Matru and Harry call him.  Like the scene, where his mother (Shabana Azmi), explains her strategy about how to make fools of people for cornering more wealth and power, and Badal smiles and applauds ironically. Or the scene near the end, when he defends Bijlee when her father discovers her playing lovey-dovey with Matru.

I could understand why Matru thinks that Badal is stupid – because he did not study at JNU – but why do Harry and even Badal’s mother feel that he is stupid, is not clear. May be because he genuinely seems in love with Bijlee and is not ruthless enough?

In the meetings, villagers of MKBKM are almost all men, except for Naseeban, who is a transgender person. There some fleeting shots of a few woman standing near their homes. May be Bhardwaj wanted to remind Haryana guys that if they go on with their female foeticide and infanticide drives, the only women they are going to get are like Naseeban. Actually he could have also shown a couple of village guys with wives who speak Bengali, Bihari or Nepali, to underline the bride-buying from other parts of India, because there are not enough marriageable women in some parts of Haryana.

Coming to the female characters in MKBKM, Bijlee (Anushka Sharma), the girl around whom the story revolves, has the least defined role in the film. The girl had insisted on going to study in Delhi and then in Oxford, but to study what? She seems content enough to follow her father’s plan to marry Badal, even if she also thinks that he is shallow and stupid.

She also seems content to take bath in the village pond and to play with old bicycle tyres in the village wearing hot pants. May be she did feminism studies in Oxford and has taken it as her life’s mission to use her dominant social position as zamindar’s daughter to bring out Haryanvi men from the medieval period into twenty-first century?

In her farm-house party, with other city guys and women, Bijlee chooses to sing a rural song, “oye-bhai oye bhai charlee” sung by Rekha Bhardwaj, hardly the song or the voice for the party of a Oxford-returned young girl and her rich friends!

Apart from the pink-wearing doctor’s wife, the only other female character of MKBKM is the scheming-plotting chief minister Chowdhury Devi (Shabana Azmi). Though she tells her son to get married to Bijlee only to get hold of her property and then to kill her off, she hardly looks and sounds like the vamp she is supposed to be. Her scheming and plotting look like play acting, she is too soft with the officials (like the scene in the beginning, where collector, police inspector and her secretary are all drunk and vomiting), and her eyes never exude the meanness she is supposed to have (though I must confess my weakness for the lady for past many decades, ever since I saw her pounding the grain in "Ankur", so I can't be objective about "Shabby Ass"!).

With Harry, as they stand on the top on hillock and talk of their future plans, she is indulgent, loving and almost poetic, hardly a ruthless politician.

Naseeban, the transgender person (which actor is it?) is treated with empathy in MKBKM. In Bollywood, usually transgender persons have been used for some songs or sometimes for films on prostitution and mafia gangs. In their rare "proper roles" in Bollywood, they are usually some kind of perverts or killers. In MKBKM, for a change, Naseeban is close friend and confidante of the hero. She is his mouth-piece, when he wants to speak to the villagers as Mr. Mao.


Harry Mandola wants to take the villagers' land and build a township. For power and money, he wants his daughter Bijlee to get married to the son of the chief minister, who helps him in getting the land earmarked as "special development zone" (SEZ), so that he can get investments and not pay taxes. His driver, Hukum Singh, is a hidden maoist, who incites villagers to find ways to sell their produce without intermediaries, pay their loans and save their land. Harry has other plans to make the villagers poorer, so that they are forced to sell their lands. However Bijlee has fallen in love with the maoist driver-cum-hero and decides to help him and the villagers.


All the persons in MKBKM are a kind of make-believe people that superficially look real, in a make-believe place, that superficially resembles Haryana. It is a fake-realism film. None of the main characters is consistent. They are all out to have a good time, doing a kind of sophisticated nautanki, a kind of  theatre of absurd.

Thus there are scenes, if taken individually, that look very realistic. Like the scene where a drunk Harry begs his daughter to give him alcohol. Bijlee tries to reason with him, bares her anguish and emotions, but like many alcoholics, the only thing that Harry understands is his need for alcohol and manipulates her emotions to run away with the drink. By itself, this scenes is realistic and very well acted. There are other scenes like the airplane scene that are more of a farce, though they are also well acted (I think that it is impossible to make Pankaj Kapoor look unconconving doing anything!). But seen as a whole, the graphs of characters are not coherent. For example, Harry behaves completely differently a few scenes later, when he play-acts to be drunk and is able to resist alcohol, because “he has sworn on his daughter’s name”.

No one is really a classical all-black villain in the story. Even the chief minister and her ridiculed son, join in the last song-and-dance routine, to show that they were play acting to be bad. Rather, Bhardwaj makes fun of all his main characters - the pro-industry-and-development group versus the community-environment-empowerment group, highlighting their contradictions.

This does not mean that there is no undercurrent of reality, necessary to call the film a satire. This undercurrent of reality is there in the ordinary viciousness of public officials, their willingness to lick the butts of those in power and to wrench out the guts of those for whom they are the mai-baap. The mad rush for the land grab under the cloak of “development”, for raping and looting the earth, unmindful of the destruction of people’s lives and of environment, is real enough.

“How did you show this land as barren and unused in the map, appropriate for making SEZ?”, the naïve chief minister asks the collector as she looks at the sprawling green fields. The collector with his greasy knowing smile says wryly, “Madam, there was nothing there for three years when it had not rained. This year unfortunately it has rained.”

That undercurrent of reality is an unconscious message that you take home with you, because the film touches very lightly on it. Most of the time, it lets you see that world as make believe, where we are smiling about the antics of a drunk man and his driver, running on a motorcycle or flying away in a small private aeroplane.

In one scene, TV reporters ask a young guy called Nainsukh, the only "eyewitness" of the landing of an UFO in Mandola village, to share his experience. And he talks about his crap. That seems to be message of the film. That the system, the media, the so-called development, but also some of people fighting for justice, are just crapping. Reality is hidden behind that crap, and you need to figure it out.

I am looking forward to watching this film again.



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