In the opening scene of Vishal Bhardwaj’s satire Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (MKBKM), a white stretch limo sits still in the middle of vast wheat fields. In front of it, a small liquor shack, which stands stubbornly closed because it’s a dry day. In the white limo, a very drunk Mandola (Pankaj Kapur) and his sidekick Matru (Imran Khan), will have none of this. So they speed the limo crashing right through the tiny shack, making away with crates of their beloved booze, Gulabo. The branding mascot of this drink of choice is a pink buffalo.
Going by just the opening scene, MKBKM had tremendous potential to be a great quirky satire. Unfortunately, it quickly turns into a meandering, lengthy, and miscast film that leaves you disappointed.
The core concept of MKBKM is an important one and one that few directors like Bhardwaj can handle with sensitivity. A group of farmers must protect their land from the greedy thirst of a conniving politician (Shabana Azmi) and her parliamentary ambitions. Bhardwaj takes this very relevant scenario and populates it with one twisted character after another. Zany characters have always been his trademark, and it’s something at which he truly excels.
So we have Mandola, the village landlord. Mandola is by far the most fascinating character in the film, helped in dollops by the brilliant performance by Pankaj Kapur. He’s a schizophrenic character of sorts, driven by booze. On the one hand, he’s a sober, calculating, and feudal landlord eager to reap huge profits from signing away all the farmland under his power to be converted to a Special Economic Zone. After a few bottles, however, he turns into a soft-hearted, slurring poet, bleeding heart socialist that aligns with the common man.
The drunken Mandola is so sympathetic to the farmers that he ends up starting a revolt against himself. And when he’s sober, visions of a grinning pink buffalo tempt him to pick up the bottle again.
It’s in such moments of irony and wit that Bhardwaj and co-writer Abhishek Chaubey shine.
Mandola’s right hand is Matru, the JNU graduate whose sole job is to keep his boss out of trouble when he gets drunk. Matru too has an alter-ego, but one that is erratically developed and leaves little impact when implemented. Completing the eponymous trio is Bijlee (Anushka Sharma), Mandola’s brash but naive daughter, who is diagnosed by Matru as having a Meena Kumar complex.
While Mandola cavorts with the politician to make his dream of earth movers, cranes, smoke stacks, and shopping malls come true, Bijlee is torn between her upcoming marriage of convenience with the politician’s son Badal (a grating Arya Babbar) and her blossoming feelings for Matru. Meanwhile, Matru gets busy continuing the revolt against Mandola that Mandola himself had started. Thrown into the mix are plenty of references to Mao Tse Tung, red and pink icons, symbolic dips in the pool to sober up, projectile cow dung, and much more.
The humor in MKBKM isn’t meant to be slapstick or spoon fed. There are layers to it, and plenty of stabs at the establishment and capitalist system. But it’s the fluctuating tone of the film and disappointingly over-acted performances that detract majorly from what could have been a powerful satire. The occasionally brilliant moments of comedy are hampered by many other scenes that seem to be forcibly constructed just to get to a juicy socio-political punchline. It’s a belabored approach to humor that becomes one of its biggest turnoffs.
While the pink buffalo is a great quirky element in the story, other devices either fall flat or are just unnecessary. The Zulu troupe that Badal brings for Bijlee serve no purpose in the film whatsoever. They are meer props randomly appearing in scenes and songs.
What’s more, the only line in the entire film that refers to them goes something along the lines of “I bought them and they don’t even know.” If that statement was a way to demonstrate how the rich spoilt brat Badal displays his entitlement, his delivery of the line and the context does it absolutely no justice. It’s an incredibly offensive way to make such a point, especially considering the history of the African continent and slavery.
Besides Pankaj Kapur’s sparkling performance, the rest of the cast leaves little impression, and even seems misplaced in such a film. Imran Khan, while putting in good effort to play the bearded Haryanvi lad with a hidden agenda, fails to deliver the gusto and screen presence that Bhardwaj’s previous male leads have usually mastered so well. It’s also an incredible challenge to match the sheer dynamism of Pankaj Kapur, which makes Khan seem more like the supporting character and not the star.
Anushka Sharma is yet again a loud, rambunctious North Indian girl, an echo of every role she has played so far in her career. Her true strengths emerge in the more serious scenes, such as when she confronts Mandola about his drinking. Shabana Azmi, as the greedy politician, goes over the top, which makes it hard to digest her role. Arya Babbar is probably the most annoying element of the film.
The unfortunate thing about MKBKM is that it has its heart in the right place but fumbles repeatedly. Bhardwaj has a clear point to make and his grasp of the rural Haryanvi milieu provides a rich setting. But satire is a tricky genre to handle. It can very easily slip into the unfunny and that is ultimately what affects the film, along with its excessive length.
If the performances were reined in and the film shortened by at least thirty minutes, MKBKM would have been an entirely different, and much more enjoyable, film.