Once upon a time in Harayana, Harry Mandola (Pankaj Kapur) gets drunk and inadvertently launches a farmer uprising against himself. Before that, the villagers had almost agreed to hand over the land he’d loaned out to them. Now, fired up by an unseen agitator who calls himself Mao, they want their fair share, and won’t sign. Luckily, Mandola’s daughter Bijlee (Anushka Sharma) is set to marry the local MP’s son (Arya Babbar). And since the MP, Chaudhari Devi (Shabana Azmi), is an old flame, Mandola’s dream of building high-rises and the like on his land seems on firm ground.
This could very easily have been that kind of film. You know, the one about drunk landowners and hapless villagers, scheming politicians and Naxalite agitations. But it isn’t. This is the sort of film where people have visions of pink buffaloes, where a man piloting a burning jet finds time to light his cigar with the flaming propeller. And it’s all the better for it.
This isn’t to say that Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola doesn’t talk about “real issues”. Along the way, the film addresses the Indian economy’s shift from agriculture to industry to services, touches on the builder-politician nexus, bungs the 3G scam into a song, and even says the words “honour killing”. But the medicine is sweetened by the drunk hi-jinks of Mandola and his drinking buddy/minder Matru (Imran Khan, very much at ease), a JNU-educated village boy who loves Bijlee. More than anything else, Vishal Bhardwaj’s film follows the example of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, which also mixed its social criticism with scenes of inspired lunacy. Yaaro fans will find a lot here that’s familiar: Babbar’s buffoonery brings to mind the hyperactive Ravi Baswani, and there’s a scene with a screen door that’s reminiscent of the phone call gag from the earlier film.
Another thing the two films have in common is Kapur, who played the bespectacled villain Tarneja in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Here, his Mandola is both good and bad, but mostly just drunk, slurring his words, swearing, dancing. It’s a boisterous lead turn by someone who’s become Bollywood’s most reliable supporting actor, and fans of Kapur the comic performer – something seen all too little on the big screen – can eat their hearts out. Fans of Bhardwaj, meanwhile, will be happy he’s back filling the screen with life and colour after the strangely acrid 7 Khoon Maaf last year. There are some rough edges – as with 2009’s Kaminey, Bhardwaj seems to generate more story strands than he knows what to do with – but even the detours here are fun.
Working with cinematographer Kartik Vijay and co-writer Abhishek Chaubey, Bhardwaj creates a host of outlandish moments: a shot that’s almost the POV of a bull, a blind boy describing a UFO landing, an insane night-time pesticide attack foiled by catapulted cow dung. In all the madness, we nearly missed the sign that said “Kusturica Brass Band”. The reference is to Emir Kusturica, in whose tragicomic films brass bands always seem to be playing. Bollywood’s younger directors like to wear their cinephilia on their sleeves, but Bhardwaj – who knows his Karz from his Kieslowski – knows that the best tributes are those which don’t call attention to themselves.
This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.