“Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola”… That touch of pink

When did Vishal Bhardwaj begin his shift from the naturalistic dramas that made his name? One may point to the scene in Kaminey where Bhope Bhau (Amole Gupte) and his goons invade Charlie’s (Shahid Kapoor) home, and the latter’s friend Mikhail (Chandan Roy Sanyal) joins them a little later. Sensing that Mikhail doesn’t know how dangerous Bhope Bhau is, Charlie tries to make him leave – but Mikhail won’t listen, and when he learns that this stranger harassing his friend is named Bhope Bhau, he calls himself Tope Bhau and begins a singsong nonsense rhyme stringing together these names. All of which somehow leads to a scene where Mikhail and Bhope Bhau point guns at each other, making masala-movie dishkaon sounds. And this stretch was intercut with scenes of Charlie’s twin Guddu in front of a couple of corrupt cops, trying to overcome his stutter while laying out his life story, by singing it to the tune of the title track from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

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This wasn’t the Bhardwaj we knew, the man who’d made, that far, two childlike fables and two potent Shakespearean dramas. That Bhardwaj was ambitious too, and for proof, we don’t have to look much further than the O saathi re song sequence in Omkara, which followed the leads through rooms and up the stairs and through the terrace and back down stairs, all in the course of a single unbroken shot. With all this beautiful showboating, Bhardwaj’s ambition was evident in more than just the form. When the  Desdemona equivalent in this Othello adaptation loses her cummerbund, during this song, we barely notice it. One moment, it’s on her waist; and as she disappears behind a structure on the terrace and reappears, it’s gone. Another director would have highlighted this loss, which single-handedly animates the rest of this tragedy. But Bhardwaj kept his focus on the lovers, on their happy times, before planting thunderclouds on their horizon.

The ambition in Kaminey was different. It was that of a filmmaker in search of newer horizons, and part of the fun was seeing this flashy version of Bhardwaj – it was as if Sergio Leone had transmogrified into Quentin Tarantino. The next film, 7 Khoon Maaf, was odder, with Bhardwaj trying to be more bizarre than he was in those few scenes in Kaminey. Now, every scene had to be outrageously different. Every character had to have a flamboyant quirk. Every dialogue had to be coloured with epic coolness. Bhardwaj kept pushing the envelope till the contents fell out and scattered on the floor. Individual moments were often brilliant, but they didn’t come together in an organic whole, and by the time we got to the heroine’s Russian suitor, whose last name echoed that of the lover’s in Anna Karenina and who said things like “Main aap se amar prem karta hoon,” the inventions became exhausting.

In Bhardwaj’s new film, Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, this style is pushed to its extreme – and inevitably, what was bizarre and outrageous earlier now turns absurd. This is the kind of film where a disclaimer, at the beginning, informs us that no chemical paint was used on buffaloes. Then Harry Mandola (Pankaj Kapur, doing a set of variations on his superb performance in The Blue Umbrella) and his driver Matru (a miscast Imran Khan) guide a stretch limo into a rickety booze shop on a dry day; the oily politician Chaudhri Devi (Shabana Azmi) sucks on a lollipop; Bijlee (Anushka Sharma) emerges from a pond and displays a tattoo above her bottom that reads Dekho magar pyaar se; Bijlee’s fiancé (him of a similarly meteorological name, Baadal, and played by a nicely addled Arya Babbar) dispenses knock-knock jokes and purchases a group of Zulus because Bijlee told him she likes African folk music; and Harry, who likes a local brand of pink beer, begins to see pink buffaloes.

Harry is an alcoholic. When drunk, he says and does the right things, wanting to help the residents of the village named after him, but when sober, he’s a ruthless capitalist, conspiring with Chaudhri Devi to buy out the villagers’ lands at dirt-cheap rates so that he can build his factories and she can bask in the glory of giving a developing nation another Special Economic Zone, in the Hindi heartland of Haryana. The basic story – and it is as basic as they come, with not a moment of revelation or insight – is something that might interest Prakash Jha, who would have invested in this haves-versus-have-nots struggle a white-hot core of desi drama. Bhardwaj, instead, takes the Beckettian route and stages a theatre of the absurd: Waiting for Godaan. The film is an endless series of distractions while we anticipate the main event – these distractions, in other words, are the main event.

There is no overarching narrative to hold us, and we are left free to graze these fertile frames and ruminate. On the referential aspects, with Bhardwaj invoking the Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica as well as his own films, Makdee (the song Chutti hai is played by the Kusturica brass band) and Maqbool (Matru and Bijlee hatch a plan to reenact the king’s murder); and Matru and Harry, initially, remind us of the mismatched-age duo in Ishqiya. On the exceedingly clever wordplay in the dialogues and in the songs (one of which rhymes tu hi tu with Timbuktu) and even in the sounds (where the cry of Mao – yes, the Chairman – begins to resemble the bellowing of a nearby buffalo). On the striving for a certain kind of tone, as when Baadal goes about his nefarious plan while singing Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head – what falls on his head is a glop of dung.

This sort of thing needs to be played out in an atmosphere of tossed-off madness. Bhardwaj gives the impression of having worked hard – really, really hard – on these scenarios and the screen drips with sweat; we are torn between admiring the thought and effort that’s gone in and being exasperated by how it all comes together. Despite the entertaining bits off and on, I came to the conclusion that Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola wasn’t doing it for me when ISRO scientists, echoing Shirish Kunder’s Joker, descend on Mandola after a “UFO landing”; the scene ends with a sight-impaired kid imploring television viewers to keep an eye out for his missing underwear. Why doesn’t modernism – even if you don’t want to call this post-modernism – work all that well in Indian cinema? I suppose it’s because the deconstruction of narrative automatically entails a distancing from the happenings, whereas the tropes of our mainstream cinema are all about bring us closer to the events and the people on screen. It’s oil and water. When the farmers’ crop is ruined by rain and when a cracked voice breaks into the heartrending Baadal uthiya ri sakhi, we cannot help but feel. And to be asked, a little later, to return to pink buffaloes in a marriage hall is… well, a little absurd.

Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

32 thoughts on ““Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola”… That touch of pink

  1. I think the likes of Kashyap,Bharadwaj have become too self-indulgent. They have loads of talent, but the feeling that they are the cinema “brats” of Indian cinema right now is not letting them do the kind if cinema that they would have ideally made.
    Omkara was brilliant, and hardly self-indulgent. I see the same problem with Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson who keep making different movies, but they try so hard that it doesn’t work well.
    I am firm believer of minimalist style. For me, “good cinema” makes you forget that it’s cinema.
    Please thecriticscut.wordpress.com for my views and articles on films.

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  2. Some of the melodramatic scenes [including the resolution in the climax] were embarrassingly clunky. They didn’t intermix well with the absurd parts. It was all over the place. You were bang on BR. Around the time the Peepli Live- like journalist scene came up, the film lost me.

    Most of the songs were intrusive too, which almost never happens in VB’s films.

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  3. Disingenuous film marketing is a bad idea. Many of the people around me were making loud impatient noises. Can’t tell them all to STFU or GTFO.

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  4. Pingback: Matru Ki Bijlee, Chennai Express, Senior Bachchan’s Internet Lingo, Zilla Ghaziabad & SAW’s First Look + Ek Thi Daayan !!! | Get Filmy

  5. Flying gobars of Vishal B. When I saw the trailer I had a queasy feeling in my stomach that said Vishal B is just not the person for absurdist comedies ( if you can call this that) and sadly I wasnt required to change my mind.
    The weird part is that the movie looks so wrong in so many ways – the humor, the casting (I seriously think Vishal B thinks he can get just about anyone to act in any role and that’s just hubris), the female role ( and this after re-reading your caravan piece on Vishal B’s women ) in this film is probably one of his worst ever, the politics (Mao, socialism, farmers etc. After movies like Shanghai, the politics in this just seems jejune). Kaminey had moments of levity too but compared to this, looked and felt sophisticated. Someone give him another Shakespeare play to make a movie on, please ?

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  6. I think it’s the other way around, TBH. I think both Kashyap and Bhardwaj are trying to pander to audiences with their latest films. I wish they behaved more like brats and made whatever they intended to make in the first place. Their indulgence doesn’t seem to mix well the more mainstream elements they are forced to adopt.

    Don’t agree w.r,t the Andersons either. Yet to see The Master, but Moonrise was perfection.

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  7. What makes you think Bhardwaj is Modernist?

    Modernism doesn’t necessarily entail the deconstruction of narrative: it does, however, make the logic of narration part of the narrative. This doesn’t require a distance from events and the people on screen(or in the story). Rather it is a way of bringing the distance between events and the writer/director to life in the chosen medium.

    Also, why do you switch between I and We so much? Why pretend that the audience you are writing to will share your reactions? Why even attempt the fiction of an already established consensus that you have been chosen to describe?

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  8. “There is no overarching narrative to hold us, and we are left free to graze these fertile frames and ruminate.”

    As usual, trust you to come up with great choice of words.

    This felt like Vishal Bharadwaj was going for a quirky, complex and more fleshed out Peepli Live but more misses than hits. With the knock knock jokes and Mandola doing puppy impressions, it was plainly unfunny in a lot of parts. And yeah, the consistency of Peepli was missing. Is this satire or is this serious? Both?! That rankled.

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  9. ahem, I guess he was referring to the normal hindi movie audience and their reaction to a situation in general. Justified, especially by a critic whose job is to think through how an audience might react to the movie. But, again when did semantics become more important than the spirit of the review? After all we are not here to judge creative writing .

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  10. @W : How strange to see you on these shores ? Its like two parts of my reading have somehow collided -

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  11. Good piece, Baradwaj. Not sure where Vishal Bharadwaj’s career as a director is heading but the last couple of movies were a huge swing and a miss.

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  12. Nidhi: Why do you say “disingenuous film marketing”? I thought the trailers gave an idea that this was going to be an odd movie… Also, I thought the integration of mainstream elements was done very well in “Gangs of Wasseypur.” I think the trick may be to do away with “realism,” and when set in a larkish movie-only world, the oil-water mix becomes easier.

    Bala: Yeah, his casting decisions are certainly odd, but you have to say that they work very well sometimes — like Saif in “Omkara.” That didn’t look like a good fot at all on paper, but the performance was just great.

    W/Partha: Was making a bit of a general remark there — not just about VB but also others who want to work within a mainstream format and yet make a self-conscious effort to let us know they’re “above” it and that they’re doing something different/special. “Aiyyaa” comes to mind.

    KK: About VB’s career, it went one way till “Omkara.” Now I think he’s trying to go someplace very different, and these films may be stepping stones that we will one day look back on and regard as crucial trial runs. And yet, I will be very surprised if someone manages to pull off this oil-water mix.

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  13. BR, The trailers for MKBKM were mostly upbeat and hid the political issues well. The audience in my theatre were evidently bored during the scenes with the farmers. I think they rather enjoyed the pink buffalo bits even when the gag became tiring for me. That’s what I meant by disingenuous marketing.

    I agree that the mix of indulgence and mainstream elements was better in GoW compared to this film, but I think it would have been a better film if Kashyap didn’t have to end most scenes with a punchline. That kind of pandering may have gotten a quick laugh (from me too) but when the film needed me to take Faizal’s regret and redemption seriously, I couldn’t do it. Too much fooling around and then the sudden need for pathos – it didn’t gel for me. Oil and water.

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  14. Did anyone else think that the pink buffalo bit was ripped off/ inspired by Wodehouse’s “Full Moon”? Also no-one else, at least in the comments section and of course BR himself, seems to have enjoyed the film as much as I did. Not saying I thought it was a great movie or anything. Sure, there were some stretches where I was kind of disengaged, but all in all, I thought it was good fun.

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  15. Well it did feel like he was very much intent on not letting the audience settle into any sort of empathy for long. He was always quick on the heels of any ‘serious’ moment to come and mess it up with a bit of nonsense, which I found particularly enjoyable.

    When the farmers’ crop is ruined by rain and when a cracked voice breaks into the heartrending Baadal uthiya ri sakhi, we cannot help but feel. And to be asked, a little later, to return to pink buffaloes in a marriage hall is

    Forget the little later, the absurdity is in that very scene,

    The morning after the rains when the village is soaked in sorrow, we hear a sad sax and we are all (expected to be) sad. Even Matru seems shaken, the eunuch is crying, some other villagers are dashed and desolate as the camera moves to cover them all we see that the sax tune is actually being played by one of the band members in the frame.

    It was a LOL moment for me where I felt he was messing with how one was to feel at that time. Never letting you come too close to emphasize. But if I pause to think, why wouldn’t a sad band player play a tune ‘in the reality’ of the movie? So shouldn’t I have continued to empathize without breaking out?

    I am able to see why you and many others here feel the way you do. I probably may have been more dismissive if it was someone else’s film. But this craziness felt quite meta.

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  16. dagalti: That shot reminded me of a scene in Jaan-e-Mann (see last para in review here: http://tinyurl.com/b3sk8pk). There too, to use your words, “a sad [musician plays] a tune ‘in the reality’ of the movie” — and that was six years ago :-)

    Actually, Shirish Kunder consistently gets all meta, and I was reminded of “Joker” during a few portions of this film. (And speaking of full-on meta madness, there was “Tashan” and “Jhoom Barabar Jhoom”, reviewed here and here, in a far more commercial mould.)

    I’m not at all putting Kunder and VB in the same league, but I’m intrigued by this line in your comment:

    “I probably may have been more dismissive if it was someone else’s film”

    Are you saying that some directors are more equal than others, in the sense that had this same moment appeared in the Kunder movie, you’d have dismissed it? :-)

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  17. I am a tad illiterate and have to check out the films you mentioned.

    But just reading your description of the Kunder movie I feel I should clarify what I meant about the sax moment in MkBkM – it wasn’t just the appearance of the character in the frame. It was how there is no change in the mood of the scene, flow of the camera etc., but yet there is a ‘benign violation’. One is very much sad at the predicament as recently as a few seconds ago and without even a break in scene he denies you the emotion and distances you.

    I felt that in many places in this film.

    The scene were Mandola discusses his dream. He is the serious sober man now. But still VB has him caricaturing the ‘greedy capitalist’. What a contrast with the first ‘morning after’ scene. It felt like he decided ‘I am not going to bother presenting his motivation realistically, because however it is dressed it up, this is all it finally amounts to’.

    But yeah, I tend to give VB a much longer rope :-)

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  18. As always a great review. But i thought that the “madness” in the film was totally enjoyable. I felt the scene where pankaj kapoor narrates his dream of his factory is just brilliant. Nothing can beat the poetic satire of that scene. I totally agree with you that Vishal Bharadwaj failed to keep the distance with the viewer by introducing a little melodrama and even the beautiful song “khamakha” . These scenes were few but had a different mood than the rest of the movie which ruins the continuity. Still i feel it’s a masterpiece because of the performance,tacky dialogues and a layered script.

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  19. Pingback: Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola – External Reviews | Bollywood

  20. hmmm I liked this film as absurd black humour. its a far better attempt than current films. its a farsical film where at the end shabana also joins the dance.

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  21. Wish TV reviews of films were also as honest and believable as these reviews. One of the reviewers on national TV, a popular one, called this movie a gem and gave it 4 stars. Shows that feel obligated to the stars and directors interviewed on them ought to realize that reviews become advertisements when they are biased. And people change channels during advertisements. It is frustrating how these media organizations manipulate facts to suit their needs.

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  22. Hi TheKomentor, Isn’t it possible that some of those reviewers genuinely felt that the movie was ‘great’? Now you might think that that doesn’t say much about their taste as film reviewers, but questioning their integrity striaght away is a bit much, don’t you think? And aren’t all reviewers biased in one way or another? How can you not as a professional who is constantly watching movies, develop some sort of affinity for some moviemaker or the other? Sure it’s supposed to be their job to keep their personal likes & dislikes out of reviews, but we are talking about human beings and not robots here.

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  23. I thought most of the madness in the film was not intelligently directed. We’re totally not with the director at many points. Like when anushka admits that she has meena kumari complex or she says that she has started brushing teeth at night, were we supposed to laugh? Nobody in my theatre laughed. These shots were totally miss-fired. Though there was some good madness as well like when shabana dances with arya babar while revealing wicked plans or when the lead pair talks about the plan to kill arya babar, wickedness was totally conveyed in these scenes. These were totally mad scenes, bad intentions+dance. Wicked! It reminded of 7khoon maaf; there was also one scene where priyanka and her team dance after killing the russian perhaps. (don’t remember the scene exactly, i just remember usha uthup’s movemenents. She’s really scary there.)
    and talking about nods to previous bhardwaj pieces, there’s one dialogue in MkBkM on mandap- durgatna se der bhali. It’s line from ishqiya’s title track (composed by VB), as everybody would have noticed.
    Tu hi tu timbuktu, a city in Africa. Perhaps making zulus feel at home. After all they must be feeling odd at the party, so arya babar acted like a good host.
    Talking about clever wordplay in VB-gulzar combination, kaminey’s title track comes to mind. Koi goodluck nikale, aaj gullak(piggy bank) to fode. Goodluck, gullak rhyme.
    Overall, MkBkM was very dissatisfying, especially the ending. The director ended it as if we’ve been waiting for the love story to consummate. He should have shown us the impact of that torn agreement paper. do farmers’s life better with that? He should have given us concluding feel about it.
    Btw, VB underlined that rain can be devastating even after the harvest. There is no proper storehouse for crops. Now i see FDI in retail can really be advantageous.
    And the first half of the movie, it too was marred by poor direction. I had so much hopes from Vishal. Imraan was shown good-intentioned guy right from the start, so it was easy to guess that he is the Mao, yet the ending of first half tried to convince us that some big secret has been revealed. It was really cheap.
    Had there been two separate layers of oil and water, it still would have looked appreciable in one way, but here the director shook the container so hard that the large globules of oil are suspending here and there in water. Ugly!

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  24. Went to catch Les Miserables PVR –Forum Mall at 10 am, since that’s the only slot I had free in a long long time. The ticket girl said sorry , no show, as you are the only one in line to buy a ticket for the film. Maybe because it was the Gold Class costing 700 bucks. Any way , since I could not go back home and show my face to my wife, after having rushed from home without breakfast, I tried to check what else was running. There was Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola and I walked in. And was I surprised, delightfully!

    This was easily the most accomplished Vishal Bhradwaj film by miles for me. A high-concept film that he managed to pull off with aplomb. Right from the first frame with Pankj Kapoor and Imran Khan looking perfect as Master and Servant, in the mould of Don Quixote-Sancho Panza, Pozzo and lucky…, the eternal , mythical duo…caught in a see-saw struggle for power, and a complex web of relationship a based on deceit, trust, mutual need, and conflict as well as confluence of interest.

    One is not likely to see a character as richly textured , as complexly rounded and as delightfully eccentric as Mr Mandola. Pankaj Kapoor was born to play this. Looking more like a Kurosawa hero from a Japanese tragic-comedy rather than a Bollywood character, Kapor gives it his all, and there is plenty that he has to give, from his impeccable alcoholic slur to his power-drunk swagger to his tenderness soaked with vulnerability when he interacts with his daughter Bijlee. Imran Khan is perfect as the JNU leftist activist Hukum Singh masquerading as Matru, the driver –cum-drinks-inhibitor of Mandola. Anushka is her usual bubbly self. And I wish shew as 3.5kgs heavier. But she too gets her fifteen minutes of limelight in the final drunken bride act. Mummy, Apki bahu nikammi, she says to her would-be sasu, Shabna Azmi, whi incidentally is top class as the Lady Macbethian scheming politician. Some of her lines, especially with her son ( Kuchh bhi ho sakta hai are blood-curdling.

    The film is littered with many verbal acrobatics and priceless witticism. The writing is insightful and sophisticated. But is the comic invention and the outlandish gags that make you tip your hat to Bhradwaj and Abhishek Chaubey , the co-writer. I especially liked the episode where Madola takes Matru for a ‘ night walk’ on his helicopter and when the fan catches fire , Mandola trying to light his cheroot from the fire on the fan blades, before jumping out with the parachute.

    The pink buffalo is of course as outlandish character as you would have ever seen in a Hindi film and Bhradwaj uses it well, reprising it in the climax quite effectively. Even the African dancers whom I had looked on with skepticism in the trailer were intelligently integrated into the script and add a piquant touch to many song picturization.

    And talking of songs, every single one has been penned lovingly by Gulzar like he only can and they have all been picturized very well. ( Nazar mein tu hi tu, Tu hi neri Timabktoo. Oh boy oh boy Charlie, Tune dil ki baazi marli…Mere ird-gird na ghuma kar, Mera haath-vaath na chuma kar… Oh boy! Haven’t had so much fun with words in along long time) . The African as well as the Hariwanvi elements have been integrated into the music seamlessly, none so adeptly as in the song Khamakha ( Loved those Hariwanvi taus on the tree top singing ‘ Bolo Ram Ram Ram)

    But beyond all the song and dance, all the fun and frolics, Matru works as a serious political satire with some pretty sharp writing all through. The episodes like Neta-Janata Chor-Police or the chilling monologue where Mandola is dreaming of the wheat fields giving way to shiny malls and multiplexes, cut to the bone of the issue with razor sharp insight.

    Watching Matru is like watching some first-rate absurd theater packed with grrat lines, a tight scrit and delightful performances. In the last twelve months, the only other film I have been this thoroughly entertained by is Gangs of Wassseypur. With this film Vishal Bhradwaj has really come into his own and he now joins my pantheon of must-see directors that include Anurag Kashyap, Rajkumar Hirani and Imtiaz Ali.

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  25. Nikhil, really, a reviewer is supposed to tell people his *personal* likes and dislikes. That is his job. And people want his personal opinion, because they think it counts. If reviewing were an objective process, it would be replaced by a computer.

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  26. I enjoyed it man. Thanks for mentioning it. I thought it was way below VB standards but heck, some scenes were surely funny.

    ‘Jab dil saand ho na, toh har ladki bhains dikhti hain’ was outrageously funny!

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  27. I liked how there was an implicit message that reading books is still cool – if one chooses to see it that way. (the shakespeare scene)

    But the depiction about selling the harvest from a crop which had been sprayed with chemicals – that points to reality. No one gives a damn about eating such food in India. I wonder if showing this was accidental or deliberate.
    They are more worried about selling the poison stuff than anything else.

    Like they have those “cigarettes are injurious to health” bylines, its high time for something like “chemicals are equally dangerous in food”. :-)

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