Beyond Bollywood: Mandaar, On Hoichoi, Is A Blistering Expedition Into The Heart Of Darkness

The five-episode series puts its own spin on Macbeth's basic themes
Beyond Bollywood: Mandaar, On Hoichoi, Is A Blistering Expedition Into The Heart Of Darkness

Kya sab gunah tha miyan? A dying Nimmi asks this question toward the end of Maqbool, Vishal Bhardwaj's masterful interpretation of Macbeth. Maqbool, who is holding her, doesn't answer.  Instead, he heaves with sobs because he knows it is too late. Maqbool and Nimmi are murderous criminals and yet, this scene is gut-wrenching. Their humanity, so exquisitely realised by Irrfan and Tabu, gives us hope that until the very end, they will somehow elude the brutality of the world they live in. Mandaar, a five-part Bengali series also inspired by Macbeth, doesn't allow us this. Despite his heinous actions, Maqbool retains his dignity. There is a sense of tragic regality about him. In contrast, Mandaar is a murderer, exploiter, rapist and eventually, as a character says, a monster.

It's a brave choice for Anirban Bhattacharya to make. Apart from playing a key character, Anirban is the co-creator, co-writer and director of the series. He purposefully constructs his leading man as a complex beast – Mandaar has an imposing physicality with broad shoulders and a thick neck. After Mandaar murders his boss and becomes the top gun, the camera repeatedly captures him from behind, showcasing his masculinity. But he is also impotent, which is perhaps what enables him to make peace with other men sexually preying on his wife. He is a willing participant in these bargains. Debashish Mondal delivers a terrific performance as a tormented goon who seethes with primal rage. Mandaar is charismatic but ferocious. He's like a walking volcano – when goaded by his wife, he erupts. Mandaar destroys everything in his path, including her.

The series is set in the fictional coastal village of Geilpur, where fishing dominates every aspect of life. So much so that when Muqaddar Mukherjee, a slimy cop played with supreme relish by Anirban, tells a prostitute that her breath smells of fish, she replies, 'Everyone in Geilpur smells of fish.' The visual of a fish impaled on a harpoon is a running leitmotif – through the series, men are also speared. Anirban and co-writer Pratik Dutta take the basic themes of Macbeth – the seductiveness of power, the consequences of crime, the pervasiveness of greed and the inevitability of punishment – and put their own spin on it.

Mandaar is a story of men and women with voracious appetites. This is borne out by images of characters eating –  Muqaddar chews almost constantly. We get tight close-ups of his mouth. Before Mandaar hits his lowest point, he asks to eat spicy mutton. But the hunger is also metaphorical – there is a deep-seated longing for power, sex, money and an emotional connection, which continues to elude most of them. Even Dablu Bhai, the gangster kingpin of Geilpur, tries desperately to hold on to his son, who he belittles but also loves. There are flashbacks to Mandaar's marriage to the lovely Laili in which he radiates innocence and even seems a little shy. But that guileless, trusting man has now wholly disappeared. Everything is tainted, including their relationship. Dablu Bhai sexually exploits Laili whenever he wishes. She is collateral damage in this arrangement between Dablu and his lieutenant Mandaar. Does Mandaar agree because he is afraid? Or because he can't satisfy Laili himself? We don't know.

The series is set in the present – everyone has cell phones and Dablu Bhai's entitled son brandishes expensive-looking headphones. But the vast rural locales make the spaces seem timeless. The near-empty beach, the dusty, winding roads, the boats and fishing nets could be centuries old. As could an old woman Monju, played superbly by actor Sajal Mondal, who represents the witches of Macbeth. She and her son tell Mandaar that he will rule. Their prophecy leads him to ruin.

Mandaar is an impressive directorial debut for Anirban. The twisted, bleak story is told with precisely crafted visuals, photographed by Soumik Haldar. As the plot becomes bloodier, the images become more distorted. Dutch angles hinting at Mandaar's lopsided world give way to upside-down frames because the universe has been upended completely. In places, Anirban leans too much into the symbolism. In episode 5 especially, the storytelling becomes overwrought and the narrative loses some of its tension. But thankfully, he recovers his grip quickly.

The other actors – Debesh Roy Chowdhury as Dablu Bhai, Loknath Dey as a scheming politician and Sohini Sarkar as Laili – are uniformly good. The editing by Sanglap Bhowmik and sound design by Adeep Singh Manki and Anindit Roy are also first rate.

Mandaar is a haunting, blistering expedition into the heart of darkness.

You can watch the series on Hoichoi.

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