Saturday, January 28, 2023

Madhur Bhandarkar’s Half-Baked Take on Pandemic Life is Indigestible


Director: Madhur Bhandarkar

Writer : Madhur Bhandarkar, Amit Joshi, and Aradhana Sah,

Casr: Prakash Belawadi, Prateik Babbar, Shweta Basu Prasad, Sai Tamhankar, Aahana Kumra, Zarin Shihab

Madhur Bhandarkar thinks he is an ethnographer, attempting to dive deep into a ‘world’ — be it corporates in Corporate (2006) or the traffic signal in Traffic Signal (2007) or fashion in Fashion (2008) or jail in Jail (2009) or calender girls in Calender Girls (2015), among others — distilling its harsh truths, toasting it over the fire of masala cinema, flattening it into its most sharp, base elements; and giving us what he deems entertainment and insight. It is so brash, so compelling, his attempt at truth-seeking, his masala ethnography, that every dialogue exchange — and I mean every single exchange of dialogue — becomes a space to articulate one’s morals and desperation, as though to be human is to either be exploiter or exploited. There is a camp viciousness to his villains, a babe-in-the-woods innocence to his protagonists; and always, like clockwork, there is a jaded figure, who has succumbed to the world, but still has a throbbing heart beating somewhere under all the wounds.

Bhandarkar’s movies, however, are always entirely entertaining because they refuse to make the distinction between representation and indulgence. For example, he will make a film about how heroines are objectified in popular discourse, and go on to do just that in the storytelling. His films want to titillate while criticizing titillation. A truly self-ironic gesture, to be sensitive and suggestive, a fist pump and a middle-finger salute, all at the same time.

With India Lockdown, Bhandarkar makes us the protagonist. He tells us of a world we know — a crumbling metropolis in the wake of a pandemic. With his other films, at least, there seemed to be some mystique in these worlds, foreign as they were to most of us. We didn’t mind the simplifications and clichés and exaggerations, simply because we love the idea of things — their painted and padded and pervy reputation — more than the thing itself. But with the lockdown? It was one of those singular, choice events in our life, and we don’t want to see it represented on the screen or literature or thought or news, unless it brings with it a tenderness, an introspective largesse, a cinematic pump, which Bhandarkar neither has nor brings. In that sense, India Lockdown feels like a film that just had to be made. There is no heart propelling this cold meat of a story. It is just Bhandarkar following up on his reputation, a lazy storyteller with sensational stories to tell. 

He, along with his co-writers Amit Joshi and Aradhana Sah, builds a tapestry of socio-economic diversity — a sex worker (Shweta Basu Prasad); a poor Bihari migrant and his family (Prateik Babbar, Sai Tamhankar); a lonely but ferocious female pilot (Aahana Kumra); a hormonal, virginal young couple (Satvik Bhatia, Zarin Shihab); an old man (Prakash Belawadi) who just wants to be with his daughter as she gives birth. Their stories zig-zag, each given one big conflict, each allowed one catharsis, their lives intersecting. The acting is uniformly bad, an adjective that applies as much to their acting as much as it is a description of the world. Unless you are an assured actor — like Konkona Sensharma, Arjan Bajwa, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Tabu, Priyanka Chopra Jonas — under Bhandarkar’s thumb, you will always be confused as to whether you are performing or being, whether the tone is camp or realism, because the situations he concocts, the dialogues he writes are piercing exaggerations in the garb of truth. Unsure actors will stumble in his films. It will be embarrassing to watch. In that vein, India Lockdown plays out like a competition of incompetence: bad accents, worse dialogues, no gut, no courage in its storytelling. 

At the end of the film, every character lands on their feet, which tells you as much about the utter delusion with which the film was made, the desperation to produce a happily-ever-after, to yank hope out of a bleak moment in humanity. Not one finger is wagged at the total incompetence with which the lockdown was executed; the state remains blameless. Instead of lasting tragedies and lingering grief, Bhandarkar’s lockdown is a device of optimism. But what do we do with hope this late? And besides, what do we do with this film which wants to be an archive but plays out like a rickety soapbox? Some tragedies don’t need representation. The dignity of silence suffices.

Originally published at www.filmcompanion.in

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