THE LIVES OF BROTHERS
The travails of a closely-knit milling community make for a few great moments, if not all-out great cinema.
APRIL 25, 2010 – MAHESH MANJREKAR MAY NOT MAKE the most perfect movies, but he does manage to craft at least a few perfect moments – like this scene in City of Gold, where a consort (the cheerfully rotund Satish Kaushik) discovers he’s a cuckold. On the surface, the moment smacks of mendacity. The wife is played by an improbably glamourous Kashmira Shah, who, with her impeccable makeup and her supermodel curves, is the last person you’re likely to run into in a chawl in the nineteen eighties. (There might have been an interesting story in how this odd couple came to be, but Manjrekar does not pursue that angle.) And the manner in which she furtively beckons to her lover, in the midst of a crowd hooting at an Amitabh Bachchan starrer, is equally unconvincing – everyone seems to be in the know. But once they tumble into bed, and once the husband stumbles into their secret, the scene begins to soar. We discover she’s as lusty for a hard body as she is for a child, after twelve barren years of marriage. She moans that her husband is a good man, but that God often doesn’t give good men everything. And Kaushik just sits outside, stunned, puffing at his cigarette. You know he’s not going to barge in, just as you know he’s never going to leave her. You know, too, that he’s going to treat the lover the way he always did, with kindness, affection and respect.
The mysteriously close communities that thrive in a chawl, where people are thrown together so tightly they have little option but to treat one another as family, formed the basis of Manjrekar’s earlier (and equally empathetic) Tera Mera Saath Rahen. Here, he embellishes that template with the gangster goings-on from Vaastav. (City of Gold, in other words, is something of a private celebration: Mahesh Manjrekar’s Greatest Hits.) The result is certainly scrappy, but not without its charms (and besides, I’d rather sit through a wobbly but sincere take on warts-and-all lower-income India than yet another multiplex-ready plastic product with scarily perfect-looking people). The additional dimension that Manjrekar brings to bear, here, is that the residents of the chawl are labourers at a textile mill that’s on its last legs. The owner (played by a sneering Sameer Dharmadhikari) wants to sell the property to developers, and he has stopped paying his employees. The chawl, therefore, is suffused with sorrow – if it isn’t a sister being cheated by a cad who leaves her pregnant, it’s a brother forced to sell a kidney or another sibling seduced into a life of easy crime and easier money.
Manjrekar hits these notes a little too insistently. The merciless capitalists come off as evil cartoons, and Greek tragedists would have balked at some of the melodramatic contrivances through which the hapless workers are wrung. (An awkward framing device doesn’t help things, and neither does the crippling coda. How Green Was My Valley was all-out melodrama too, centered on an impoverished mining community, but how gracefully the tragedies unfolded, and with how much wry humour.) But the characters are drawn with great affection, and are embodied by talented performers at the other end of the spectrum from stars (namely, real actors, many of whom are unfamiliar enough that they come with no earlier associations). Seema Biswas, Sachin Khedekar, Satish Kaushik, Vineet Singh and Karan Patel sell their selves so convincingly, we are left with little option but surrender. It’s hard not to warm up to these lives. And those of us who grew up in the eighties may warm up a little more, with cricket commentaries focusing on Miandad and Ghavri, and with small shacks renting out bicycles for the king’s ransom of a rupee an hour. Mahesh Manjrekar may not make the most perfect movies, but he does manage to capture some near-perfect memories.
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