Man this title is a mouthful! And well... so is the movie. And an earful. And an eyeful. (Do all these words even exist?? No matter. Nor do pink buffaloes.) I went to this one with little excitement after reading all the disappointed tweets and reviews. Could this be the first time that my favourite director lets me down? Because while I have come to expect duds from pretty much everyone else, Vishal Bhardwaj was standing alone as the only director who has not made a single bad movie, in this blogger's opinion anyway (and I know many don't agree). His new venture, a film about a wacky trio and their messed up relationships, is set against the backdrop of a village trying to save their land from the scheming politicians and the greedy industrialists. With so much stuff going on, I was ready for anything.
So... how did it go, you ask?
Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola is my least favourite Vishal Bhardwaj film. But that said, the man has yet to let me down, because even my least favourite film of his has me going back to the theatre for a rewatch. And I'll say it right from the beginning, it's my least favourite because I am used to Vishal Bhardwaj running a much tighter ship than this. With his previous projects one thing was always certain: you either liked the whole thing, or you didn't. There were never half measures, or scenes that could be taken out, there was never room for improvement from the direction point of view. Maybe his characters were objectionable (7 Khoon Maaf), maybe his script was too twisted (Kaminey), maybe his setting was too perplexing (Maqbool), but his sense of what's important for the movie could never be questioned. With MKBKM this did not hold true. It was as if, unable to choose which scenes would get the most laughs, or the most emotional support, Vishal just decided to leave them all in and let people choose their own adventure. Not an unpardonable sin, for sure, but an unexpected slip from such a confident director.
That said, I've always adored his sense of humour, even in films that were not meant to be comedies, so how could I not love the first film where he goes all out on the LOLs? And as it turns out, despite the uneven pace, a few days later I still laugh out loud thinking about some of the scenes in MKBKM, having forgotten all the times when the film fumbled. Now some would say that a few scenes are not enough to make a decent movie, and I would normally agree. But if you add to those scenes a wicked soundtrack (with picturizations to match), exquisite visuals (a VB trademark), a superb performance from its leading actor (no, not Imran Khan, the real leading actor) and a pink buffalo, then it's a different conversation altogether. Because, and this is key, in order to fully enjoy Matru ki Bijlee you have to always keep in mind that it's the kind of movie where there is a pink buffalo, sitting on a bed, laughing. And if you shrugged your shoulders or raised your eyebrow reading that, I suggest you skip this one, I doubt you'll consider your money well spent.
The film begins with the most hilarious smoking warning that essentially tells you that everything you're doing, from texting to drinking lemonade can cause you harm. As if that was not enough, the first scene sees Matru (Imran Khan) and Harry Mandola (Pankaj Kapoor) driving a limousine into a liquor shop to get to their precious beer on a dry day. Now don't get your hopes up, not everything in the film will have you howling with laughter as these two scenes did. But there will be plenty more where that came from, that's for sure.
What I love about Bhardwaj's sense of humour (and not to take anything away from the execution, but I'll get to that in a minute) is that he plays so well with contradictions. So when a drunk Harry Mandola leads a procession against himself, complete with the best song on the soundtrack, you don't even go WTF!, you skip straight to laughing because it just makes sense.
Similarly, when the power-hungry politician asks why the fields that she was going to seize from the villagers are now singing with bountiful crops, and she gets the answer: "It rained. On time.", you once again crack up because nothing in India is EVER on time and it's so hilarious that something being on time can actually ruin one's plans.
Then of course there are the more subtle ironies, which are even more satisfying. One of my favourites involves Matru taking the plight of the farmers to a multi-million, multi-national company with offices in a sky-scraper in order to get the grains sold overseas. This in the context of preventing a local multi-million company from seizing the lands and building what? A mall and some skyscrapers. It's a scene that seems a little bit tacked on and I wondered for a while why it was even in the film, but the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced Vishal Bhardwaj was fully aware of the irony of this situation.
And lest I forget, the most delectable irony of them all is Harry Mandola himself, a character who is more of a human being when drunk than sober. Only Bhardwaj could even think of such a character. In a world where entire films get made about abusive drunkards and about the tragic consequences of alcoholism (and nothing against that, awareness is a great thing), Mandola is a man who is not only fun and loving when drunk, but he actually has us cheering against his attempts at staying on the wagon because sobriety turns him into a cold-hearted greedy realist.
Then again, on the topic of contradictions, it's interesting to notice that not just Mandola, but every important character in the film has an alter ego that prevents them from doing the right thing (or that serves as a mask when they do it). No one is who they seem to be, everyone has something to hide about themselves. A theme that comes back again and again throughout the film in covert or explicit ways. For crying out loud, there are two avatars even for the pink buffalo! And this alter ego motif extends somehow to the entire film: a social satire disguised sometimes as a comedy, sometimes as serious drama. If only the two sides had been weaved together as well as the two Harrys, or the two Matrus, or the two Bijlees.
And I can't move on without mentioning a contradiction that is very close to my heart (and I say this tongue in cheek, as always), namely the fight to preserve an agrarian society (deemed ethically superior to the capitalist pigs) made possible by the leadership of a communist icon (or rather his Indian avatar): Mao. And I won't even begin on this one, I'll just say it always amuses me that this rivalry still exists and it still makes for entire movie plots. It's like love at first sight, it simply won't go away.
It's almost redundant to speak about performances in a Vishal Bhardwaj film because, well, they're always stellar. And certainly the man is doing everyone a favour by having the fabulous Pankaj Kapoor do what he does best: act. Please, Vishal, keep him in business forever so he doesn't get any more ideas about directing. Okay, thanks! Seriously though, I've always liked Pankaj Kapoor and I always looked forward to his performance in a movie, but in this film he outdoes himself. The drunken mumbles, the deadpan expressions, the sleazy-flirty passes at Shabana's character (whose over the top delivery reminded me of her delicious character in Makdee), the zest with which he throws himself into the songs, Pankaj Kapoor is a one-man-show that keeps you entertained even when the rest of the film falters. Truly an outstanding performance for which he will probably not even see a nomination because such is the way the world turns.
The film's supporting actors (because next to Kapoor everyone else is just filler) all do a good job, though I'm sad to say that for all the support I have given him over the years this is the first time when Imran Khan disappoints me. It doesn't help that he's never looked hotter and that his chemistry with Anuskha Sharma delivers one of the most intense kisses we've seen in Bollywood (as an aside, I think I have a soft spot for women throwing themselves at him, it totally worked for me in Delhi Belly too).
So with all this good stuff helping him, I would have expected to love him in this, and yet his performance is the weakest link in this film. I can't put my finger on it because I've seen him deliver better in similar situations in other films, but something was missing from this performance. Then again... dude knows how to rock a beard and earrings, so that gets him off the hook. This time.
Anushka Sharma still has my vote even though I was hoping to see a different role from her. And to be fair, in this one, her trademarked sunny disposition turns out to be nothing but a cover-up for the disappointments in her life. If her poor rich girl character had been a little more developed there was definitely room for Anushka to experiment with a more serious role. But no matter. She does this role well so I'm ok with seeing a good thing repeated. Plus, give it to Vishal to include some cheeky dialogues about her penchant for skimpy clothing. Nothing like a good dose of meta-commentary.
Sadly, for all the good stuff crammed in this film, there is also room for plenty of details that don't quite work. For example as much as I appreciated the tribal vibe of the songs, and for all my love of a woman who can deliver a good booty-shake, the inclusion of the South African performers was completely gratuitous and poorly justified. Either that or I didn't get the joke. Maybe I'll get it when I see the film again this week.
In the meantime I'll just keep laughing to myself at all the clever dialogues and all the quirky visuals because they're the main reason why this film worked for me. They don't seem to have been enough for most reviewers, so unfortunately this is not a one-size-fits-all movie, but then comedy hardly ever is. And it's safe to assume that most reviewers are not as easily distracted by eye-candy as me. Uff!
Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (Hindi, 2013)
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Starring: Pankaj Kapoor, Imran Khan, Anushka Sharma, Shabana Azmi, Arya Babbar
Music: Vishal Bhardwaj