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.
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.
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