Director: Nicholas Kharkongor
Cast: Rajat Kapoor, Lushin Dubey, Kalki Koechlin, Shiv Pandit
Mantra is what I’d call a quintessential TV movie. It is replete with the sort of nostalgia and unremarkable faces that may grow on us over time, perhaps after lazy fragmented viewings. It tells the tale of a seminal phase of a Delhi-based entrepreneurial family at the turn of the millennium – a group of timeworn urban folks caught between two Indias and conflicting identities.
Think of Dil Dhadakne Do, but scaled down to an upper middle-class setting (a BMW instead of a cruise liner) – a proud patriarch in financial trouble, a fading image, a sexless autopilot marriage, a disillusioned wife (Lushin Dubey) on the brink, a daughter (Kalki, as Diya) aching to break free, a son (the forever-intense Shiv Pandit) never good enough for his father. There’s also a horny teenaged boy, who we learn is perhaps a “bonus round” for his parents to make up for their previous neglect: this kid represents the ‘dawn’ of the internet age, a distinct hitherto-novel breed of millennials locked in a virtual world of make-believe love and angst.
Kapil’s (Rajat Kapoor) vastly popular King Chips empire is losing steam, while its multinational rival Kipper is taking over. His struggles invoke the typical ‘downfall’ scenario, a fictitious peek into the domestic happenings of an old-school business unable to adapt to the rigid formalities of post-liberalization India (hint: Uncle Chipps being acquired by Frito-Lay in 2000). In one scene, Kapil can’t come to terms with the fact that his potato suppliers now believe in the fancy ‘contract’ philosophy. His self-pity increases each time he walks away from a failed funding meeting, while his kids – traditionally shielded from parents’ misfortunes – remain on their own trips. Kapil resents his son for not helping with the business, and employs a quasi-condescending tone whenever he asks about his son’s ‘new-age’ venture, a lounge called Mantra; that “you kids and your fads” voice is a loaded one, betraying the interest he feigns with his family on the dinner table.
Think of Dil Dhadakne Do, but scaled down to an upper middle-class setting (a BMW instead of a cruise liner) – a proud patriarch in financial trouble, a fading image, a sexless autopilot marriage, a disillusioned wife (Lushin Dubey) on the brink...
Director Nicholas Kharkongor’s crowd-funded film plays on the ‘personality,’ and not the side effects, of this merger: a behind-the-scenes exploration too episodic, too vanilla, to be a truly cinematic experience. More than the environment (‘India Shining’ hoardings), it’s the characters, and their off-the-cuff remarks and conversations, which suggest the hues of this lost-in-transition country. As is the Delhi norm, there’s a lot of talking, internalizing and still a gaping lack of communication.
Kapil’s relationship with his old friends employs more than just the rakishness of North-Indian banter – jokes about China, democracy, politics, women and money weed their way into our senses in guise of lewd misogynistic humour. Their vibe is simultaneously infectious and irksome, only designed to outline Kapil’s moody predicament.
We keep expecting something drastic to happen, as it tends to when roaming the capital’s streets at night. Until we’re reminded that this is really not one of those atmospheric, ominous downhill sagas; it’s a practical, and somewhat inconsistent, portrait of one man at the most vulnerable moment of his life. You’d like to see more about the people that define his gradual dismantling, his reluctant emasculation – which is where the little spin-offs (Diya’s connection to a stranger from the newly-formed Jharkhand) could have gained some texture and put their status into clearer perspective.
Mantra is what I’d call a quintessential TV movie. It is replete with the sort of nostalgia and unremarkable faces that may grow on us over time, perhaps after lazy fragmented viewings
One has come to expect shifty shades of grey whenever Rajat Kapoor plays a primary character in a film. He is more often than not the flawed face that leads a secret life, or cheats on his wife. In Mantra, however, he isn’t a villain to begin with, and doesn’t become a hero to end with either. He is a man who will explode, but not in the way we’re accustomed to. The only person he continuously cheats on is himself – which is why this unfamiliar nobility-paradox makes Kapil one of his more interesting parts.
A few perceptive moments from the film will remain with me, but I suspect it’ll be more in the language of unrelated memories; I wouldn’t know where to place them, or why they appeal to me in a particular context. And then, I’d switch the channel. And still not be any wiser about the choice of title.
Watch the trailer here: