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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