Matru ki bijlee ka mandola
Direction: Vishal Bhardwaj
Actors: Pankaj Kapoor, Imran Khan, Anushka Sharma, Arya Babbar, Shabana Azmi
A Vishal Bhardwaj film is guaranteed to evoke a strong reaction. You can love it – as I did Maqbool and Kaminey – or dislike it, as I think most people did 7 Khoon Maaf. But you can’t be indifferent. So I am a little disappointed to report that Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola didn’t stir up any keen emotions in me. Parts of the film soar but many are saggy and ultimately I was just underwhelmed. The film begins with a singularly delectable image – a stretch limousine standing in a field.
Its owner is the superbly drunk Mandola (played by Pankaj Kapoor), a feudal landlord, the undisputed king of a village somewhere in Haryana. Mandola is actually two men – a wily, ambitious, insatiably greedy businessman when sober, and a generous rabble-rouser when drunk. Early in the film, a slurring Mandola hilariously incites a morcha against himself. His man Friday, Matru, played by Imran Khan, is a law graduate who is back in the village because he couldn’t find another job. Matru is in love with Bijlee, played by Anushka Sharma, Mandola’s Oxford-returned daughter. I couldn’t figure out why she had to be Oxford-returned since, mostly, she just wanders around aimlessly. Add to this a corrupt minister, Chaudhari Devi (played by Shabana Azmi), and her imbecile son Baadal (played by Arya Babbar) and you have a simmering cauldron of memorable characters. But sadly, this doesn’t translate into a memorable movie. Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola is designed to be purposefully eccentric. After all this is a film in which a smiling pink buffalo plays a pivotal part. Some of this, especially the buffalo, is inventive and great fun. But the screenplay, co-written by Vishal and Abhishek Chaubey, tries to marry whimsy with a serious narrative about land-grabbing, exploited farmers and the ugly truth behind the new, shining India.
It’s ambitious but also indulgent and inconsistent in tone, making the film a jerky ride. Some stretches are clunky, but just when you’re starting to get restless a terrific scene grabs you – like Chaudhari Devi’s creepily mesmerising monologue on why corruption is essential. Azmi is wonderful, as is Kapoor, who manages to be, in equal parts, childlike, endearing and nasty. But the big surprise is Imran Khan, who sheds his urban, chocolate boy baggage. It’s an exciting transformation. Despite this, Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola feels like a puzzle in which all the pieces don’t fit. Its idiosyncrasies are both its strength and its undoing.