Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (2013)

A Vishal Bhardwaj film is guaranteed to arouse a strong reaction. You can love it – as I did Maqbool and Kaminey – or dislike it, as I think most people did 7 Khoon Maaf. But you can’t be unresponsive.

If it’s true – what director Vishal Bhardwaj would have us believe in that cheeky anti-smoking disclaimer that precedes Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola – that too much of anything, even water and lemon, is harmful, then the filmmaker evidently doesn’t practice what he preaches. This outrageous comedy after all shows little concern for our health as it delivers laugh after side-splitting laugh.

Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola might well be described as Bhardwaj’s holiday movie – a mad story with crazy characters – but fortunately for us, even in a light mood, the director can be counted on to say interesting things.

In a fictional village somewhere  in Haryana, the wealthiest resident, a feudal landlord, Harry Mandola (Pankaj Kapur), has conspired with a cunning minister (Shabana Azmi) to arrogate the poor villagers’ farmlands so he can build an industrial plant. Harry has a drinking problem, but he’s a better man when he’s under the influence, sympathizing with the villagers’ condition, even going so far as to lead a procession against himself one woozy night. His Man Friday, Hukum Singh Matru (Imran Khan), has been hired with the sole purpose of controlling Mandola’s drinking habit, but that’s easier said than done. Meanwhile, in an alliance that would benefit both sides, Mandola has gotten his motherless, oxford-return daughter Bijlee(?) (Anushka Sharma) engaged to the politico’s dimwit son (Arya Babbar).

From hallucinations about pink buffaloes to a potentially fatal drunken flight, the film’s humor subs skillfully between the inventive and the jesting, seldom striking a false note. His tongue firmly in cheek, Bhardwaj also takes pointed jabs at the nexus between those in power and those with deep pockets, making a case for the fraught rural population often stuck in between.

Assisted by an excellent music score packed with hummable gems, and working off a terrific, layered script, the director sketches his quirky characters lovingly, giving them soul so you form a sense of real attachment to them. The chemistry between Mandola and Matru is magnetic…witness that scene in which they decide to punish a well for standing in their way. Bijlee, for all her brashness, reveals real pathos simmering beneath the surface, particularly in her scenes with her father.

If there’s anything that feels artificial, it’s a scene between Matru and an old college friend he taps for help, or the broad strokes with which the director caricatures Azmi’s corrupt minister, although the actress herself gives a deliciously evil performance. The language and inflections in the film feel unfamiliar, and take some getting used to. It’s impossible to catch every joke and dialogue, which is a pity given that the writing is so rich.

Of the cast, Anushka Sharma is dependably feisty yet achingly vulnerable, breathing life into the conflicted Bijlee. Imran Khan, for his part, offers a solid, confident turn, owning the character of Matru completely, holding his own even while acting off a veteran like Pankaj Kapur.

The film, not surprisingly, belongs to Kapur, who never misses a beat as the paradoxical Mandola. It’s wonderful how he’s particularly lucid when he’s drunk, making the most sense in this senseless state. But it’s Arya Babbar who catches you completely off-guard with a delightful performance as the politico’s daft son. Watch how he “gifts” his fiancée a Zulu dancing troupe, or even his late reactions to his mother’s sinister brainwaves…the actor is the surprise packet in this charming film.

Returning to form after the disappointing 7 Khoon Maaf, Vishal Bhardwaj gives us a film that’s enjoyable and relevant in equal measure. I’m going with three-and-half out of five for Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola. The year’s first gem has arrived – don’t miss it!