Review: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola

Without warning, there is an accident. Then, a flashback: to ten minutes earlier. A flashback which explains, nearly in realtime, how the accident comes to be. Why, then, did we not directly start from the flashback? Because Vishal said so.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest film delights in its own impish, impromptu absurdity. There is much daftness in this oddly titled Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, a cock-and-pink-buffalo story that stays surreal even at its most satirical. It’s theatrical, insightful, wickedly clever and, often, too funny to even laugh at, if you know what I mean. It is also, as may be apparent, an utterly random movie, sometimes jarringly uneven and frequently meandering. And yet it works, because it is, at every single step, unexpected and surprising.

matru1Even the most seemingly slapdash of scenes appears magical when the work of a master is evident. This film swings with two sultans, each spurring the other on toward a sillier spectacle, a sight of grand lunacy. Bhardwaj more than handles his end — heaping on wordplay and quirk and texture — but the Quixote in the other corner is even wilder: Pankaj Kapur, who carries the film with smiles and slurs. Together, this jesting juggalbandi provides a rare treat: a legendary actor rolling up his sleeves and a director giving him miles of room in which to conjure. Forget Matru and Bijlee, in Mandola lies the magic.

Technically, though, the whole film lies in Mandola. It’s set in a fictive Haryana village of the same name, a name it shares with its only wealthy resident, a land-hungry tyrant played by Kapur. And while he squeezes farmers dry by day, a few stiff drinks invariably bring out his inner socialist: it’s a regular Dr Jekyll and Comrade Hyde. A drunken Mandola even leads the oppressed masses to revolt against himself, but isn’t at all amused once he regains his wits.

It is a peculiar universe populated by many a weirdo, and akes a while to settle in. One on hand is Mandola’s canny driver, Matru, (Imran Khan) who indulgently leads his master toward drink, clearly fond of the sloshed socialist within. On the other is Bijli, (Anushka Sharma) the tyrant’s daughter, an over-kohl’d drama queen eager enough to marry into money. There are farmers hunting for Mao to guide them, and sycophantic policemen who collude gladly with a scheming politician (Shabana Azmi). And being set in the laconic state of Haryana, the humour is dryer and flatter than usually seen in a farce: the laughs may not come easy, but it’s hard not to keep grinning.

But it’s not all snorts and chortles. Behind the beguiling buffoonery and unrestrained slapstick lie deeper points, about how barren fields can be more profitable than lush ones, about how politicos justify self-interest by hailing it as another form of altruism, about the way even rain can be co-opted as a farmer’s greatest foe. Why, in one unforgettable moment, glasses are raised and, instead of the often-mispronounced ‘chairs’ for ‘cheers,’ the politician raises her drink with a cry for actual seats of power. ‘Kursiyaan!’

There is much this film says, about Special Economic Zones and the development myth, and with that subject it — with a diametrically different approach — treads on some ground covered by last year’s finest film. When the most important filmmakers of our time concentrate on the same issues, we should be paying attention, too.

We must also heed the language, for there is no Indian filmmaker who uses words as deliberately, pointedly and skilfully as Bhardwaj. An accidental revolutionary, when jeered at, snaps back “ghar mein Mao-Lenin naa hai ke?” instead of bringing up mothers and sisters. Mandola’s profanity sounds coarse but is technically innocent, his most colourful bit of cussing — “uski toh Ma ka papad sadega” — merely sounding dirty. And in one exceptional scene, when Mandola evocatively outlines his vision of farms turning into shopping malls, he kicks things off with brutal lyricism, by saying this dream has been clawing at the back of his eyelids.

matru2There is much detail to cherish, crammed lovingly between the lines. The flighty Bijli, unsure of herself — alternating one minute and direct the next, if I may — is told she has cobwebs inside her. Her father, meanwhile, is a feudal oppressor with his greatest weakness inside him, his moat literally inside his castle. Fateful rain comes from the sky soon after people from an African tribe dance exuberantly around a fire, perhaps inadvertently willing it. And a father shoves his errant daughter ahead of him, as if making her walk the plank.

Bhardwaj’s influence is clear, and, as always, saluted. The brass band in the film is called the Kusturi-ca Brass Band, and while the Serbian master Emir Kusturica is known for his chimerical surrealism, Matru appears simpler and less fluid, perhaps due to its need to adhere to a familiar dramatic narrative. In that Bhardwaj’s film appears closer to one of the loonier Coen Brothers films, or even, ah yes, a PG Wodehouse plot by way of Jim Jarmusch. It would be depressingly bleak if it wasn’t as spontaneously fun.

Imran isn’t ideal but looks the part and manages to get by, and Anushka — while stumbling on some of the stranger lines — is great in a couple of scenes near the climax. Arya Babbar, in a Reggie Mantle like clean-shaven idiot role, is pretty decent and Azmi’s reliably good, especially when armed with a scary soliloquy.

But make no mistake, this is a one-actor show, giving the greatest thespian in our country another delightfully odd space. Pankaj Kapur is the best we’ve had, and — as he hallucinates, as he rouses the people, as he steels himself — this is all a reminder of that. Even the way he gigglingly insists on giving a man who calls himself Mao the bottle with his Left hand.

Laced with both acid and arsenic, Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It takes a while to get into its groove, but changes gears with spectacular finesse after that. And no matter the slight niggles: this is a film that goes far out on a limb, and gives us both bedlam and nuances, enough to warrant repeated viewings. And more than enough to love. Oh boy oh boy indeed.

Rating: 4 stars


First published Rediff, January 11, 2013


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  1. Ankita Shreeram (@DreamyCynic)

    Wonderfully written! I shall certainly go watch the movie :)

  2. Zoeb

    Mr Raja Sen you have left me hungry for the film. Unfortunately, I dont seem to have the time to give this film a proper watch.
    The last Vishal Bhardwaj film you reviewed 7Khoon Maaf was something that you did not like. I watched it and I liked it though I would agree with you that it does not match the level usually achieved by Bhardwaj.
    But after writing such a saucy and witty review of Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, I am really tempted to watch it. I guess you are right. It is a weird kind of political comedy and I particularly liked your Coen Bros reference- the film does look in the promos like O Brother Where Art Thou. I guess it wont be fun for everyone but I guess I have to watch the film once I get time.
    Thanks for the fun-filled review….

  3. Amit

    Very well written indeed. Puts the finger on my feeling, which I myself failed to do. It’s brilliance in abundance, and yet the totality isn’t for everyone. You can only marvel at the effort of VB, and the brilliance of Pankaj Kapoor

  4. arijit

    you are the best in the business ! Keep the good work up !

  5. Priya T

    I avidly follow your reviews and find them spot on. But this review has surprised me – I found MKBKM too forcedly farcical, with ham-handed monologues about capitalism (what WAS that documentrary-esque montage seeming like a novice film student’s interpretation of Ayn Rand!!), unsubtle juxtaposition of ideologies like that “Commie bastard!”-“Bourgeois bitch!” exchange, and the Robin Hood hero actually using the name Mao! In the modern world, when communism has proved itself resoundingly as an unviable alternative for capitalism, it is irritating that a movie maker like Vishal has reduced the issues facing modern India into a simplistic argument of ideology. Not funny and quite annoying. And this annoyance drowned my enjoyment of that stunning opening shot, the pink buffalo, the rip-roaringly funny scene of the nightime attack on the fields, and many other brilliant moments of the movie.

    Pankaj Kapur is the only reason I sat through the very end, even sitting to watch till the last of the credits roll.

  6. Rajvi Bhow

    I don’t know if your rating of 4 stars is really justified. I left the movie confused and wanting for more. Read my full review here:

  7. Amitabh Chattopadhyay

    Splendid as always Mr Sen! But don’t you think that bhardwaj was having way too much fun with the characters he created and not enough with the plot itself? It seems to me that the film deserved smarter editing than it ultimately got.. Also i have an issue with the cinematography.. The texture of the night shots didn’t seem to match the rest of the film. I am not sure if that is due to the newer digital cameras.
    I totally agree with the coen bros comparison .The quirky films that i have liked in the past didn’t tend to be preachy. This one is a tad too preachy for my taste.

  8. Chowder Singh

    Accurate review of a delightful film. Though I thought Matru held on inspite of the powerful Mandola magic. Bijlee was ok though.

  9. hardik mehta

    Why celebrate Mao so much when he has been a cause of so many human right abuses in china during his time?
    Did i get it wrong or am i missing something?..filmmakers of our times and that too as big as VB not knowing the other side of Mao and kept making a hero out of him….So Matru is the Robinhood heroof the village and his pseudonym is Mao…so ignorant people and esp today’s generation would take Mao as Robinhood….like seriously? Where has the history gone? In gulabo’s bottle?

    And they show a che guevara poster in Matru’s makeshift room and then he is called Mao..Isn’t it funny that they have taken all people associated with Red in one corner?

    what do u have to say fanboy? or when it comes to bollywood we should just forget history books and keep laughing at this so-called ‘intellectual’ satire…?

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