Looking back at Shyam Benegal’s mesmerising Mandi

Shyam Benegal’s mesmeric Mandi chronicles life through a woman running a brothel house in the crammed backstreets of Hyderabad.

As is the nature of a marketplace, the establishment is marked by rumpus and range but Benegal views the matriarch’s lifestyle and choices with endless fascination and empathy. She may not always deserve our pity but neither do society’s self-appointed moral police attacking her lack of propriety when they ought to question their own hypocrisy and history of transgression.

Mandi’s satirical narrative — based on the short story Anandi by Ghulam Abbas — sniggers at their double standards while offering an intimate understanding of Rukmini Bai’s (Shabana Azmi) bustling kotha and its day-to-day affairs.

In its opening sequence, Rukmini juggles between extending hospitality to visitors/guests of significance, getting rid of a monkey on the loose, ensuring her beloved Zeenat’s (Smita Patil) riyaaz goes uninterrupted, telling off a sneaky photographer caught clicking one of his girls without permission, calming down the towel-draped tearful girl in question, restraining a freshly purchased entrant’s escape and ordering around her loyal lackey Tungrus (Naseeruddin Shah) for all of the above.

Chaos is an accepted way of life in this dysfunctional household, almost like some defence mechanism that enables them to cope with their inferior status in social hierarchy.

Undoubtedly conscious of the revulsion they draw, Rukmini and her girls are neither apologetic nor resentful. As cosy their colourful community may seem, it is not without its differences.

Smita Patil’s Zeenat, the only virgin in Rukmini’s bordello, spends most of her time on the floor above, an ivory tower of sorts, rehearsing and reciting classical thumris. Soni Razdan’s Nadira is callous and business-like in her approach. Neena Gupta’s Basanti grudges Zeenat’s preferential treatment and aspires to showcase her kathak skills on a grander platform. Anita Kanwar’s raunchy Parveena takes kindly to all kinds of lusty behaviour. Sreela Majumdar’s Phoolmani conveys the plight of a gullible village belle tricked into the flesh trade. Ila Arun’s highstrung Kamli is due to deliver her third child even as Rukmini, always looking out for her profession, hopes it’s a girl. Even Tungrus (a frighteningly authentic Naseeruddin Shah), after downing one too many, doesn’t mince words about his demanding mistress yet is too much of a bum to forsake her company.

Switching between maternal and street-smart, Rukmini looks at her profession as an ancient art, one that prospered under the patronage of feudal lords but is struggling to find foothold and legitimacy in postcolonial India. It’s hectic but fun to keep pace with Rukmini’s erratic mood swings –hysterical, sickly-sweet, shrewd, vinegary or audacious, the woman is enjoyably melodramatic.

A 33-year-old Shabana consciously overate and put on extra kilos to look a part 15-20 years older than her actual age. She even made a trip to a few red light areas to research the body language of Rukmini. Crimped hair, big bindi, multiple chains, shiny saris, paan, zubaan –the actress shows a good grasp of her Hyderabadi character’s habits, accent and conditioning not just superficially but in the measured exuberance of her bossy, overbearing dealings. Her protective ardour around Smita Patil bears genuine grace of a mother figure, one that her most famous rival and co-star reciprocates as intently.

Trespassing their livelihood are elements of greed, voyeurism, propaganda and exploitation under the pretext of progress, ambition, empowerment and rehabilitation.

Geeta Sidharth fits right in the role of a white cotton sari-clad pseudo feminist endeavouring to sanitize a neighbourhood while folks titter about the incestuous affair she’s carrying on. Kulbushan Kharbanda and Saeed Jaffrey’s civility is purely to mask their mutually beneficial alliance. One’s got money and a cuckoo daughter (a droll Ratna Pathak Shah), another a son and mortgaged house.

Except the latter, played limply by Aditya Bhattacharya isn’t quite the chump he looks and rebels to romance the coquettish Zeenat. Forbidden to express her sexuality as freely as her sisterhood, she’s developed a flippant attitude towards her prized virginity. During one hilarious episode, Rukmini kicks out three suitors from her room much to Zeenat’s amusement.

The men may not be central to Mandi’s story but they matter. There’s Harish Patel’s wimpy cop, Annu Kapoor’s well-meaning doctor, Pankaj Kapoor’s phony activist, Om Puri’s incorrigible photographer (but, of course, he prefers to be thought of as an artist) and Amrish Puri in a fanciful cameo as a flaky, wish-fulfilling Sufi saint.

Call it a dream ensemble or casting coup but to rope in nearly every single stalwart of parallel cinema is an overwhelming task. Master filmmaker that he is, Benegal weaves their presence and genius seamlessly in Mandi’s multihued story to lend it an inclusive, eclectic texture.

It’s as much a wry commentary by the auteur on the politics of social sciences as it is a humorous slice-of-survival brought alive in Nitish Roy’s National award-winning art design. Roy creates a dilapidated ambiance reflecting the cluttered minds and bleak prospects of its gaudy inhabitants. Yet the same space acquires an old-world charm the moment they assume the role of a traditional enchantress excelling in the art of kathak and thumri. Music director and Benegal favourite, Vanraj Bhatia composes elegant melodies to match the magic of classic Urdu poetry.

Benegal’s triumphant, timeless vision finds an equal in cinematographer Ashok Mehta. His camera, devoid of male gaze and moral scrutiny, captures the raw, raunchy reality of Rukmini’s kotha head-on and views their explicit candour and crude ideas of vanity as characteristic not caricature.

Even after three decades, Mandi proves its lasting relevance and powerful impact on cinephile memory by inviting comparisons to Vidya Balan’s Begum Jaan.

This article was first published on rediff.com.

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Review: The Salesman inspires awe!

Asghar Farhadi’s gift to anticipate danger in ordinary scenes and pick on unspoken torment around a narrative stoked by ambiguity lends his cinema a frightening authenticity. 

The Salesman, which earned the acclaimed Iranian filmmaker his second Oscar for Best Foreign Film early this year, delves deeper into the process of repression and ideals of honour in a patriarchal society while challenging its viewer to confront a moral dilemma as pressingly as its protagonists.

Farhadi addresses its potential for trouble right at the onset when Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a married couple in their mid-30s, scramble out of their crumpling apartment, along with a host of panicking neighbours, of a building that’s irreversibly battered by the construction next door. 

The emerging cracks on the glass window offer a foreboding sign of what lies ahead. 

Emad and Rana are actors in Teheran’s theatre group staging a version of Arthur Miller’s famous play, Death of Salesman, from which the film draws its title and belated metaphor. On the insistence of a senior co-actor, the newly homeless husband and wife agree to shift to an unoccupied house, oblivious to the notoriety associated with its enigmatic erstwhile occupant. 

Strewn in understated symbolism, Farhad’s technique provides artistic dimensions and emotional nuance to the complexities of The Salesman. It’s most effective when Rana’s oversight gives access to an unwelcome intruder causing inexplicable horror. Farhadi withholds on the visual of violence but documents its seriousness in a stressful aftermath and sharp disclosures.  

Taraneh Alidoosti’s face is a well of evocative expressions in how deep it plunges to bring out Rana’s anxiety and empathy. But more than her humiliation and healing, The Salesman focuses on Emad’s wounded male pride and irrational desire for retribution. 

Shahab Hosseini, who won at Cannes for his brilliant portrayal, renders the concerns in Emad’s bitter masculinity and temper with remarkable confusion and pity.

The Salesman is entirely viewed from his perspective and decline.

From someone who humoured the teenagers in his art class and attributed a woman’s unease in sharing space next to him in a car pool to possible bad experience, to a seething snoop capable of uncharacteristic callousness, the incident has dented Emad’s psyche and marriage in more ways than one. 

Farhadi hits on this mounting tension most explicitly in a heart-breaking dinner scene where even the most delectable food leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Except what Emad is yearning for is far more toxic even if totally understandable. 

What follows is a tense, thrilling, touching third act that seeks to distinguish between instinct and impulse, vengeance and indulgence, sin and virtue, pardon and punishment. 

The answer you walk away with is the person you are. That’s the genius of Farhadi — everyone discovers something bittersweet about themselves within or watching his true to life creations.  

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Super filmi week: Why Akshay Kumar’s National Award win feels like a joke

From ranting about Akshay Kumar’s National Award and Vinod Khanna’s viral photos to raving about Adil Hussain’s Mukti Bhawan and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies, my super filmi week is high on emotions.

Monday

Take a morning flight from Delhi, reach Mumbai airport past noon and then drive to Press Club in town to collect an award from Indywood for Media Excellence in online journalism. By the time I reach home, which takes longer than usual thanks to the city’s ruthless traffic, I am too pooped out to even touch my dinner.

What I do show an appetite for is the final episode of HBO’s marvellous mini-series, Big Little Lies. After six weeks of speculation over who’s dead and who did it, it is time for the big reveal.

David E Kelly’s adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s book starring talent like Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley focuses on mothers of first graders in a coastal California town. But the swank lifestyle and confident demeanour of these ladies betrays its sinister air, damaging insecurities and dark theme of domestic abuse, which after mysteriously hinting at a significant someone’s murder culminates into an emotional finish.

The payoff is explosive even if a little too tidy for my liking. What’s extraordinary is Nicole Kidman’s masterpiece performance. As relevant its other actors are, Kidman’s insight into a silent sufferer is so intricate and upsetting, it upstages everyone and everything else.

Tuesday

While working on a story about Jeetendra, I stumble upon a 1985 baloney called Bond 303. In this poor man’s 007 directed by Ravi Tandon (Raveena’s dad and behind entertainers like Khel Khel Mein and Khuddar), Jeetu relives his secret agent memories from Farz for an even dumber premise.

What caught my eye though is Helen in a ridiculous costume wherein a heart-shaped cloth patch is incompletely stitched to her bodice. Before you blame this on shoddy tailoring, there’s a real reason why the sloppily seamed heart flaps wildly all through the cabaret number.

There’s a covert message for Jeetendra’s eyes only, back when there were no smart phones to send a simple text, Helen adopts this hilarious method, one that reads –Tonys sister.
Grammar Nazis, do you see what I see?

Wednesday

Mumbai’s infuriating traffic is working overtime to ensure I am late for a screening of Mukti Bhawan at the suburban Lightbox preview theatre. Luckily, I make it just in time. Straightaway, I am sucked into the private world of a father-son pair arriving in the holy city of Benares with a peculiar goal.

As I wrote in my raving review, “Shubhashish Bhutiani’s serene yet stirring Mukti Bhawan views the world with sagacious eyes and attends to one of its most inconvenient truths with a pinch of humour and pile of wisdom. What comes forth is craftsmanship of staggering depth and sublime vision.”

It’s also uplifting in its philosophy of celebrating something as depressing as death by looking at it as a passage instead of end. Such enlightenment may be ideal and calming but is challenging to achieve. Mukti Bhawan reflects this vulnerability.

Thursday
Only last month I paid a visit to my ailing uncle in Gurgaon. A shadow of his former self, it was painful to note the extent his illness had worn him out. That’s the sad reality of life – everyone grows old and farther away from the shiny image we fondly hold on to, of others or ourselves.

And so it troubles me no end when a sickly Vinod Khanna’s hospital photos circulate to generate cheap curiosity and shock value in the media.

“OMG: Vinod Khanna is unrecognizable!”

“Vinod Khanna’s shocking look after illness.”

“Vinod Khanna: Then and Now!”

I can understand concern and sympathy but the sensational tone of these headlines reveals a creepy excitement, a disturbing trend of revelling in misery. It’s better we start treating actors as human beings instead of placing them on a toxic pedestal that robs their right to privacy, dignity or pain.

Friday
List of National Award winners is out and Akshay Kumar has grabbed Best Actor for Rustom. What would have made a brilliant April fool joke a few days ago is, unfortunately, true.

Now I like Akshay Kumar. Airlift was one of my favourite films of 2016 and I thought his pitch-perfect delivery in Jolly LLB 2 makes for a far superior sequel. But Rustom, no matter how dapper Akshay looks in that uniform, is an inarguable mockery of true events where neither he nor the film can be taken seriously even for a moment.

Rustom’s inferiority isn’t the real problem. Nor is Akshay’s talent in question here. If anything it’s rather unfortunate how his credibility has come in question due to this year’s ignorant jury — one that overlooks inspiring portrayals like Manoj Bajpayee in Aligarh or Sushant Singh Rajput in M S Dhoni to reward arbitrarily for reasons that make no sense and discredit a still prestigious tradition.

Saturday
I am officially addicted to the new Netflix offering, 13 Reasons Why.

Based on Jay Asher’s young adult bestseller of the same name, it’s a subdued but intriguing drama about a 17-year-old teenager who commits suicide and leaves behind a series of tapes, containing her no holds barred account of what led to it, to be circulated among classmates somehow linked to the events.

Seven episodes down, six more to go but I am already appreciating its incisive commentary on various anxieties afflicting youngsters as much as its layered storytelling and sound acting.

Sunday

Until now I had only heard that Basu Chatterjee’s Chhoti Si Baat takes inspiration from the British film School for Scoundrels or How to Win Without Actually Cheating, which itself is based on Stephen Potter’s novels Gamesmanship, Oneupmanship and Lifemanship. It’s somewhat of a relief to discover Chhoti Si Baat is superior to its 1960 source.

As engaging School for Scoundrels is, Chatterjee’s coming-of-age tale offers a more detailed understanding of the insecurities that hold back Amol Palekar’s adept but awkward young man from admitting his affection for Vidya Sinha or showing Asrani he’s no pushover. It’s only natural we root for his new, improved avatar, following Ashok Kumar’s resourceful intervention, to outdo the cunning Asrani at his own game.

By comparison, the protagonist in School for Scoundrels appears more slow-witted than inadequate whereas his speedy transformation renders him more sneaky than smart.

In the words of Potter, ‘He who is not one-up is one-down.’ Advantage Amol Palekar.

This column was first published on rediff.com.

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