Pataakha review: The new Vishal Bhardwaj film is colourful, noisy and dazzling
Director - Vishal Bhardwaj
Cast - Sanya Malhotra, Radhika Madan, Sunil Grover, Vijay Raaz
Rating - 4/5
These sisters are named after flowers, but don’t let that fool you. These are duelling sticks of dynamite who steal each others stolen beedis and spark each other’s fuses. They are either on the warpath or standing by, demanding to be offended. They are flammable girls with savage tongues, sharp as maanja used to cut down rival kites flying over a neighbour’s roof. The garish swear words they spit out — about noseless witches and wives of frogs — are straight out of folklore. (Do curses and hexes cancel each other out?)
Pataakha is Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of a short story by Charan Singh Pathik. In the beginning, it felt a bit flat to me. Too many Hindi films set in small towns and unfamiliar villages eagerly milk dialect and surroundings for laughs, but Bhardwaj keeps it raw. The dialogues steer clear of predictable punchlines and it takes a while to get used to a film that refuses to try too hard. Coming from a master director, this feels like a minor film — about two minors, daughters of a miner — till we get to see what these firecrackers are dreaming about.
Watch the Pataakha trailer here
One wants to go to school to open one of her own, the other wants to stay out of school to start her own dairy. Their eyes gleam when looking at blackboards and pasteurisation facilities respectively, and they are ready to battle for their ambitions. They happen also to be highly sought after women, made eligible by their feistiness. Both girls first physically overpower their suitors, and then choose to relent. They decide when they want the first flush of rural romance, their courtship taking place against the backdrop of motorcycling daredevils and lassi stores. They are in charge.
Here is the film’s plot: two sisters fight. The short story Do Behnein is six pages long, and starts only as Pataakha enters its second half. Bhardwaj turns these warring sisters into a metaphor for India and Pakistan, countries locked in an endless cycle of sniping. It is an unsubtle analogy but crudely effective, much like a street-play. The metaphor peaks with the girls’ hapless father, stranded in no man’s land. Vijay Raaz plays this father of nations with a defeated dignity. It is a fragile, affecting performance in a film full of louder ones, as if he is too tired. His shoulders are slumped and the effort to be fair has worn him down. Once in a while he smiles, like when delousing both daughters at once with the dexterity of a tabla player.
The narrator is no such sad figure. Nicknamed Dipper because of an errant eye — and played with roguish sleaziness by Sunil Grover — he is a remnant of Bhardwaj’s infatuation with Shakespeare, a troublemaker equal parts Iago and Puck. Like a wrestling promoter, he starts and celebrates the biggest sister wars, and concocts harebrained schemes with nearly sadistic abandon. As I said, it’s a street-play.
The elder sister, Champa Kumari, frequently bites her lip. She’s a big sister defined by her younger sister — forever called ‘Badki’ instead of by name — and when stealing her little sister’s western-wear, makes sure to properly cover the sleeping ‘Chhutki’ up with a blanket. She has her own entourage and sits among them at the town fair with a pair of binoculars, scoping out (and immediately dismissing) men. Radhika Madan positively shines in this bossy role, unwavering in dialect and determination. The way she bites her dupatta in mock-shyness, the way she boasts about her smartphone, the way she brandishes a clothes-iron… She’s priceless.
Then there’s Genda Kumari, the younger sister, called ‘Marigold’ by her English-speaking Army boyfriend. (He has a different nickname for her when she’s angrier: Bloody Mary.) She is perpetually poised to strike. Even when simply checking to see if Badki has a fever, Chhutki’s method is to smack her on the forehead. She is a feckless girl, grinning her widest when she comes up with suitably nuclear abuse, and Sanya Malhotra plays this character with unhinged enthusiasm. At one point we see her in school, learning active and passive voice, and I dare only marvel at the kind of profanity she will someday conjure. It’s a delightfully scrappy character, and Malhotra appears to be a fearless actress.
The music doesn’t get in the way. The soundtrack works when underlining the story, but the songs can’t quite stand on its own. A glossy track from the trailers (featuring the glossy Malaika Arora Khan) has rightly been excised from this gloriously grimy production. Pataakha is a film at odds with polish. This is a down and dirty quickie, and yet it emerges more resonant than many films that advertise their ambition across their posters.
The details are delightful. The turns of phrase are both rollicking and unassumingly poetic. Badki, appalled by the ticket prices for a new film, wonders if this time Salman Khan — an actor famous for climactically removing his shirt — will take his pants off as well. Later, the narrator compares the girls to balloons while calling their nightmares pin-pricks, that make them go boom.
In one scene, with the sisters going at each other tooth and slipper, there is a show of their two daughters. The young girls have their faces frozen in fear, sickened by this vulgar physicality. These kids may well be a stand-in for citizens watching diplomatic discussions between the neighbour countries break down yet again. They watch, embarrassed and mortified, as their mothers fight.
India claims to loathe Pakistan, but with the kind of undying vehemence that is reserved exclusively for family. We may, for instance, crow about conquering Pakistan in every World Cup cricket match we’ve played, but back when they faced England in the 1992 final, India cheered Imran Khan’s boys in green. If you want to beat them, get in line. They’re ours.
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