Bringing All The Boys to the Yard
I'm sure many would have been enticed by Anushka Sharma's cheeky and sensual scene seen in the trailer where she emerged from under a mean looking pond in a wet t-shirt, coming to expect a mad cap rom-com, before the opening scene involving a white stretched limo in an open agricultural field brought all illusions crashing. This is written and directed by the man who brought us Kaminey and 7 Khoon Maaf, films that are unorthodox in Bollywood terms, and continues in his daring, swashbuckling style with Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola.
The title is a play on the names of its three main characters, which pans out and are directly involved in the plight of the villagers in Haryana. Vishal Bhardwaj's story gets pumped with enough twists and turns, centered around the great divide between the haves and the have nots, together with how the crave for money and power corrupts from within. In Mandola, played by Pankaj Kapur, he's a Jekyll and Hyde character, the rich industrialist who fantasizes possessing the lands of the farmers to transform them into a special economic zone done concrete jungle style, with dough rolling in for his urban development company. But when drunk, he goes to the other end of the spectrum, lending his support to the unhappy villagers in leading a revolt against himself.
Caught in the middle is the full-bearded Imran Khan's Matru, whose servitude toward the Mandola household means he's put in a position to try and influence Mandola when he's in either mode, or perhaps swaying him into a position which is most advantageous for the villagers, whom he supports, coming up with schemes and ideas to thwart the many opposing plots to get the farmers lose their land, or get into debt, leaving them with the only choice of having to sell their land, and livelihood. And rounding up the equation is Mandola's feisty daughter Bijlee (Anushka Sharma), a free spirited woman without a care in the world thanks to being born with a silver spoon, but ultimately having to decide and play out a childish romance with Badal (Arya Babbar), her college sweetheart.
The protagonist comes conveniently as Badal's power hungry mother, the politician Chaudhari Devi (Shabana Azmi), who together with her son and Mandola, form a symbiotic power hungry relationship, one needing the other for money, and the other for power, and the way to get both is via the impending union of their children Badal and Bijlee. They form the perfect villanous bedfellows in trying to get rid of the villagers in their midst in order to stand for their brand of progress, and are undoubtedly a pot-shot taken by Vishal Bhardwaj to paint a political picture through this film, what more with the villagers picking up inspiration tips from an unknown guru calling himself Mao, and Matru having very left political leanings in his dealings to help the poor.
But unlike Pipli Live, this tale somehow fell on its own weight and ambition. The politics weaved felt very lightweight in criticism, painting very broad caricatures on how those with insatiable power would behave, and the heroism of those who go beyond their call of duty to lend assistance. It's a class, social, and power divide struggle, painted as a background to a romantic triangle which was relatively non-existent especially in the Badal-Bijlee arc, with Matru-Bijlee looking solid right from the start. Then again, perhaps the first time pairing of Imran Khan and Anushka Sharma was anticipation enough, both one of the hottest properties in Bollywood currently, but both equally daring in taking up a project that boasts a highly non-conventional narrative treatment.
The twists and turns in affiliations go into epic proportions, but Bhardwaj got let down by a relatively weak final act, that didn't manage to capitalize on the uniqueness of his presentation and storytelling craft, degenerating into crowd pleasing silliness in an all's well end's well attitude. It's episodic in fashion, with facing of the film kept erratic, which served its purpose in providing time to contemplate and absorb the multiple turns, and riding on adrenaline in its quirkier moments mostly involving a pink buffalo, but sometimes having too much of a good thing repeated may backfire and make it creep into the boring, one-note territory.
Vishal Bhardwaj would cement himself as a very different kind of director in Bollywood, but certainly Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola isn't his strongest work to date, but I would guess the sheer presence of leads Imran Khan and Anushka Sharma would ensure a decent return.