There's no way around this fact: Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola is a strange film. However, its oddities are in the end rather scarce, so what you have is a fairly fun, thoroughly musical political satire, taking place in the fictional village of Mandola in Haryana, interspersed with moments that just trip up the viewer a little. It's a good film, but it's also the kind that I can imagine leaving some a bit puzzled, some a bit frustrated, and others overjoyed with what they just witnessed.
The story is relevant to the modern political realities in India today; the farmers of Mandola are getting communist propaganda briefings from a person calling themselves only 'Mao', encouraging the peasants to rise against the drunkard landowner Mandola (Pankaj Kapur), who is being charmed by the cunning politician (Shabana Azmi) to set up a Special Economic Zone near the village. The servant Matru (Imran Khan) is supposed to keep Mandola away from booze, a task he fails at more than he succeeds, and meanwhile Mandola's daughter Bijlee (Anushka Sharma) lives a care-free existence, under nobody's rule.
There's a lot to bite into here, and perhaps one central failing of the satire is that it allows itself some silly flourishes without delving too deep into some of the themes it could explore more. Mind you, this is India, and the Censor Board affects the way every story we get is told - it's hard to say what might've changed from the director's original vision. There is also the fact that Bhardwaj is typically at his best when adapting other people's material - from the Shakespeare adaptations to 7 Khoon Maaf, originally a novel. Kaminey was all his, but also played within a genre (underworld thriller) that Bhardwaj knows like he knows how to compose beautiful tunes for his wife Rekha Bhardwaj to sing.
I find myself not being too sure what MKBKM is going for at times. There are portions of it that are clear-cut political satire and criticisms of modern Indian society, where the criminal politicians (who are a-plenty) take land away from poor farmers to start up big development projects that benefit mainly the already well-off classes. Then there is the depiction of Mandola's alcoholism - both comical and tragicomical at once, and about as gruesome a portrait as the anti-smoking campaign ads Indian films now seem to have tacked onto their beginnings. The pink buffalo is just one of the little oddities that the film throws into the mix, but its greater meaning is never quite clear.
Perhaps one problem is just the fact that Bhardwaj is not exactly at home in the comedy genre. There are funny moments in this film, just as a lot of his other films, but it's not exactly laugh-out-loud funny. Nor do I think it should be, but the fact it really seems to go for it, attempting to get those chuckles, kind of makes me wonder. I also don't know what to make of the African Zulu musician-dancers. Their first appearance has a definite reason from the script, and they pretty quickly align themselves with the plight of the villagers (perhaps signalling some sort of solidarity between their own conditions at home). They're never given a speaking part, or much of a character, so they stand as this strange reminder of one strand of plot - an excess of comedy, perhaps - that I personally didn't really know what to do with. I couldn't condemn it, but nor could I justify it entirely in my head.
This is perhaps sounding a bit too negative, considering how much I actually liked the film. It's filled with things small and big that I generally enjoy. Vishal Bhardwaj plays the tune of my heart, and so his music always underscores the mood of his films beautifully. The soundtrack is as strange as the film, but it's also wonderful, catchy and infectiously enjoyable. The acting is also all-around great. Pankaj Kapur's character Mandola is written to be a show-stealer, so it's no surprise he does just that, and crafts a strange relationship between him and Shabana Azmi's politician character Chaudhari Devi, who's amusing in her megalomaniac manipulative nature. I really fell in love with Anushka's rebel-finding-a-cause Bijlee, even though it doesn't seem like she gets that much scope in the story - it could just be that I like Anushka Sharma, period.
Imran Khan is one of those guys I've been perpetually lukewarm towards. I like him, I've just never had a reason to like him for than that faintly positive tolerance I have of him. Matru probably had the makings of a career-defining performance, but since Mandola ends up being the undeniable main character, Matru ends up playing second fiddle and so does Imran. He acts well, though, so much so that I finally began to warm up to him. Him and Anushka share fairly easy chemistry and their love story forms one of the best parts of the film.
How does Matru rate among Bhardwaj's excellent filmography? The lower half, for sure, but only because his other work is just so stellar. I'm loathe to use the word quirky, but that's what the film is - its quirkiness forms about half of its charm, but also contributes to a rather uneven narrative. I also have a feeling I may be pre-judging the film, as any political satire that plays with as many themes as the film should probably be viewed a few times before passing final judgment.
It could be that despite feeling a bit uneven, Matru is precisely the film it wants to be - with all those little oddities in there, all those comedy flourishes, and the portrayal of alcoholism just as goofy-serious as it's meant to be. If so, I feel like I need to digest this one a bit more. If not, and this is just Bhardwaj-sahib trying something new, and not really knowing what to do in the new genre, then perhaps we would do well to send him a good novel we'd like to see adapted. As ever, even Bhardwaj on a bad day is better than most other directors on a bad day. Ultimately, Matru is very much worth seeing.