Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola Vishal Bhardwaj fiftyfiftyme 2013: Major
There are two general truths about my Hindi cinema experiences: They are very, very rare, and they are very, very disappointing. Rare, because I live 350 kilometres from the nearest cinema that regularly shows Hindi films, and disappointing because on the rare occasions I happen to be in that city, the films being shown are dire. Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola was both an exception to and a confirmation of those truths, which was fitting for the film itself.
Instead of having to wait months for a DVD, thanks to being in the right place on release day I got to see this film before almost all my filmi friends, courtesy of Aotearoa’s advanced timezone. I was very excited about it for many reasons: The music seemed fun and lively, and Pankaj Kapur was back to being in front of the camera, not behind it, giving him a chance to atone for the awful Mausam. Also, Vishal Bhardwaj directed it, and I absolutely love the other three of his films that I’ve seen and own, Omkara, Maqbool and The Blue Umbrella. With that sort of pedigree, what could go wrong? Quite a bit, as it turned out.
There was a lot that I really liked about the film. Shabana Azmi positively revelled in her role as the absolutely amoral and corrupt Minister, hamming it up with a glee that reminded me of Alan Rickman’s villains in Die Hard and the otherwise execrable Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It seemed that Shabana got found added fun in role that saw her playing a character the exact opposite of her offscreen image. Pankaj was better acting than directing, another fine performance of a character with a speech impediment in a Bhardwaj movie. And Anushka seemed solid in a role that was a little like a rural version of Shruti from Band Baaja Baraat. Even Imran seemed marginally less wooden and vanilla than he usually does.
I really enjoyed the music, and the comedy. There were a lot of genuinely funny moments, even if I was the only person in the cinema who laughed when the Minister’s spectacularly dullwitted son asked if it was a “tubelight” who revealed a key plot point. The scene where Matru and Harry “move” the well was comic genius, and one of the main reasons I am going to watch the film again. It was also a very rare treat to be part of an audience actively enjoying a Hindi film, not being stupefied into somnolence as by Mausam, or walking out in boredom as with Dabangg 2.
I also really loved the film’s unabashed use of devanagari, as in the poster above. To see devanagari being used in everything from karaoke screens to cheques was a refreshing change from the rampant Anglicisation of Hindi films, and it was fun to read it to myself while hearing a Panjabi audience member behind me reading it aloud for his friends who couldn’t read it.
Despite all those good points the film fell short of my expectations. Like its main character it seemed schizophrenic, veering from being strong in its bizarrely comic surreal elements to being plodding in its sombre sermonising portions. Unlike its main character, whose altered states were a result of alcohol’s presence or absence, the film never really explained or linked its two personalities. It was riddled with erratic inconsistencies, right down to Imran’s “now you hear it, now you don’t” accent, which even my very inexperienced ears caught repeatedly. The political sermonising was stodgy and as subtle as a blow to the head, although not quite as much fun. The seamless blend of innocence, wonder and malice that Bhardwaj achieved in The Blue Umbrella was sadly very noticeable by it absence in this film.
Some reviewers have panned the film viciously, others have praised the movie to the skies, like my twitter friend and major league Shabana fan Carla, aka filmi geek . The diverse range of reactions seems apt for a such a split movie. For me, this film was a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, a refreshing break from my history of only seeing stinkers on the big screen, and a provider of several good laughs. If only it had been given some internal coherence and a clear sense of its own identity, it could have been a great film. Instead, it was quite literally “not bad”, and as praise goes, that’s pretty damn faint.