Let’s start with a wealthy landowner/financier who we will call Harry Mandola, who imagines turning most of land in Mandola, a village (named after his family) in the state of Haryana, into a sprawling center of development including an industrial park, retail malls, and residential apartment towers also known as housing for the necessary labor and support business people. To accomplish this, the locals would have to sell their land to the government at decidedly bargain basement rates. If that fails, the government could acquire the land via foreclosures (which we shall call economic terrorism), or by underhanded activities such as scare tactics (which we shall call emotional terrorism), or outright criminal activities.
Once the corrupt state government has the deeds to the land, at the stroke of a pen, the land will be deemed a SEZ (Special Economic Zone) which is just another way of saying – we are now open for business. Then, via what will be almost assuredly be rigged bidding, Mandola will win the developmental rights, meaning he will put up the complex, over charge the government, and then kick back money to the corrupt State Minister.
The corrupt government official, Minister Devi, calls it progress for ‘the good of the country’, Mandola, the landowner/financier calls it a win-win. The rest of us call it coercion, extortion, and … white-collar thuggery, and we wonder if India has an equivalent to our own RICO statutes. That’s what’s going in Vishal Bharadwaj‘s film Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola which opened world-wide on January 11th, 2013.
The title refers to the three principal characters of the film. Mandola is the crusty and crafty gazillionaire who likes money, and as we will find out – he really likes to drink. Matru is his man-friday, factotum, majordomo, and right hand man whose main function is to make sure that Mandola doesn’t wander too far off course while under the influence of the liquid spirits. Bijlee is Mandola’s daughter. She’s a New Delhi college graduate who also studied at Oxford, in the UK. And, in case you were wondering, she’s not only brainy, she’s also beautiful.
The film has two other characters of importance. The aforementioned government Minister, and her adult son, Baadal, who, in something that can only be called an arrangement, is engaged to Mandola’s daughter Bijlee. The underlying reasons for that merger, sorry … marriage, are that the Minister wants to her son to marry into the wealthy Mandola family especially since Bijlee is Mandola’s only heir. And Mandola himself, has made his own daughter available as the proverbial ‘cherry on the top’ to make sure his business deal goes through.
So on the surface it looks like a win-win for all concerned. Except for the villagers. Except for Bijlee, who is any thing but the proper daughter.
So while we have what appears to be a political conspiracy and corruption drama hand in hand with a love story at the core of the film, VB has added a whole lot more. Like fantasy, like political satire, like comedy, and even that doesn’t tell all.
How about a tribal African dance troop, a pink cow that smiles and laughs, Bijlee doing an Indian version of a wet tee-shirt scene, a stolen airplane, people arguing with a well, copious amounts of booze, a liquor shop operating in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a field of crops, and in one stunning event – a fight between the locals and the government goons with the locals protecting their turf by hurling cow flops (dung) at the intruders.
Yes it is one surprise after another. You might even say that VB has way too much on the plate. What suffers is the coherence. Plot lines start and vanish. Social themes are introduced and are not satisfactorily pursued, explained, or concluded. Even Matru has an alter ego – are you ready? He also portrays a figure known as Mao. Yes – that Mao as VB introduces a whisper of communism as the antidote for corruption.
As for the players – Shabana Azmi plays the gold digging State Minister. Now 61 years old, Azmi was one the darlings of India’s New Wave or Parallel Cinema of the 70s and 80’s as a leading lady. She’s now playing more mature roles. As Baadal, we have Aarya Babbar, who I am unfamiliar with. Together, Azmi and Babbar were very effective in their roles. Watch for Azmi in a scene with the titular Mandola in a scene in a hill-top temple.
Anushka Sharma plays the toothsome and leggy Bijlee. She’s light on her feet, dances very well, and most men can’t take their eyes off her. Her career is only in its 5th year, and this is her seventh film and I’ve seen all of them. Watch for Bijlee’s drunken entrance to her own wedding in this film.
Imran Khan plays Matru. He’s good but his face is hidden beneath a full beard. He hasn’t much to do besides ‘managing’ his boss Harry Mandola, and being a part of the Baadal, Bijlee, Matru triangle when he’s not trotting around as Mao.
Acting honors for the film must go to Pankaj Kapur as Harry Mandola. He’s exceptional whether he’s the loony drunk, the overbearing and brutal businessman, or the caring father. It is as if the film was written for him.
Speaking of which – Vishal Bharadwaj directed the film, co-wrote the film script, and composed the very fine music making him a filmi Master of the Universe.
Critical reception for the film has been mixed. You’ll either love it or hate it. While the film contain many magical and amazing segments – there are other parts that leave you scratching your head, as you are left to ponder ‘why was that in the film?
To give you a look at some of the magic, check the video of the song Khamakha:
While you can say that there’s much to praise in the film, and the filmmaker’s passion and skill are very evident, yet at least for me – the film failed to engage me deeply. Three point zero is the rating.