The memory of an inebriated Pankaj Kapur crashing a wedding atop a humongous pink buffalo or “gulaabi bhains”, cussing “pancho, pancho” in a perfect Haryanvi accent, will possibly stay with me for a long time. But apart from that one applause-worthy moment, there is little to take home from Vishal Bhardwaj’s recent offering Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola. Set in the village of Mandola in the rustic backdrop of Haryana, the film depicts a stale capitalism-versus-socialism plot, with some redeeming attempts to spice it up with rural anecdotes and drunken humour.
Harry Mandola (Kapur) is a super-rich tycoon who runs a successful construction business and lives in a palace in Haryana. Battling serious alcohol abuse, Mandola is a capitalist when sober and a socialist when drunk. Shouldering his drunken body throughout the lengthy film (over two hours and 30 minutes) is Hukkum Singh Matru (Imran Khan), Mandola’s brooding Man-Friday whose life depends on ensuring that Mandola limits his alcohol consumption to two pegs. Mandola’s rebellious daughter Bijlee (Anushka Sharma) is engaged to Badal (Arya Babbar) whose conniving, politician mother (Shabana Azmi) is manipulating Mandola for his assets.
And thrown into this already-brimming set up is a rustic incarnation of revolutionary Mao, a man the villagers have never seen, who leads a gimmicky uprising against Mandola’s regime. At the heart of the plot is the sombre issue of land acquisition and the plight of peasants — but Bhardwaj’s treatment of the subject isn’t quite serious.
Bhardwaj is famous for sketching dark yet multifaceted characters, choosing subjects with underlying meanings conveyed only satirically and a pitch-perfect casting in Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006) and Kaminey(2009). What then, one wonders, prompted him to cast Khan in the role of the raunchy Matru. Khan, whose last noteworthy performance was in Delhi Belly (2011), struggles with his character and isn’t convincing enough. In addition, he is also burdened with the role of a Robin Hood-esque figure, a messiah for the villagers. While he lurks in the shadows of Kapur through a majority of the film, he does deliver in a few chemistry-charged scenes with Sharma. I give him credit for his intense and rustic avatar (the three-day stubble, golden hoops and incessant hookah-smoking); I only wish he’d rehearsed longer to dispense of the anglicised Haryanvi accent. Sharma, as the zany Bijlee, seems to be nursing a prolonged hangover from her role in Band Baja Baaraat(2010). While she does slip into the character with ease, we’ve seen her pull the enthusiastic, chirpy yet emotionally-damaged girl-next-door before.
But Bhardwaj redeems himself through the enigmatic-yet-lecherous Harry Mandola and the delightfully sinister Choudhari Devi (Azmi). Kapur plays the drunken Harry with great élan — he cusses, dances, flirts and even leers at women with great conviction. “Jab dil saand ho toh har aurat bhains lagti hai”, he declares unflinchingly. The chemistry between Azmi and Kapur makes the film worth a watch. “Yeh tumhaara sapnon ka Lokpal hai,” she says to a dewy-eyed Mandola as he revels in his plans of setting up a car factory with smoke-spewing chimneys, malls and multiplexes — an obvious dig at the machinations of businessmen.
The film has its share of hilarious moments — be it the corrupt cops puking out the previous night’s whiskey before receiving Choudhari Devi at the airport or the drunken adventures of Matru and Mandola (one of which involves crashing a plane). In another scene, while handing out “gulaabi” (the local liquor of the region,) to Matru, Mandola playfully tells him to take it from the left hand — a clever jibe at Matru’s Leftist ideology. The film blends the unstructured air of a nukkad natakwith elements of a Shakespearean classic — we only wish they weren’t so clumsily tossed together.