Director: Madhur Bhandarkar

Cast: Kirti Kulhari, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Tota Roy Chowdhury, Anupam Kher

You know it’s a Madhur Bhandarkar movie when exposition happens in the following manner: the camera focuses on random faces (who will never be seen again) at a party while they whisper to each other about an important new character entering (“oh look, that’s Mr. Kapoor and his wife who is actually having an affair…”) or about their personal/professional landscape (“ever since the Emergency was declared, he has become PM’s right-hand man”) the writers feel we must immediately be privy to.

I call this trademark third-person perspective the “gossip” angle.

Here, he makes his protagonist the ultimate underdog cliché: an under-confident lady (Kirti Kulhari as Indu Sarkar, a name in no way related to Indira Gandhi’s ruling government back in 1975), who has a crippling stutter, and grew up as an orphan.

Bhandarkar’s establishing gaze has always been fairly voyeuristic, given that most of his antagonists are famous and powerful people. For some broader mansplaining, it’s usually segments of the working-class population doing the same: a bunch of drivers or beggars are seen brashly discussing the state of the country to communicate the overall situation to viewers. These bit-part actors are almost always awful.

In Indu Sarkar, this trend of course continues. It feels oddly comforting to see these signature Bhandarkarisms, even after all these years. Like seeing an annoying cousin who has refused to evolve with age. That’s not where it ends, either. Forget poverty porn; Bhandarkar thrives on “background” porn. He has stopped trusting his own writing and ability to earn empathy so much that he has begun to design inherently disabled characters.

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Here, he makes his protagonist the ultimate underdog cliché: an under-confident lady (Kirti Kulhari as Indu Sarkar, a name in no way related to Indira Gandhi’s ruling government back in 1975), who has a crippling stutter, and grew up as an orphan. That’s the triple threat of emotional profiling.

Flashbacks show Indu growing up as a rejected dark-skinned child with a “voice disease” – where she spends much of her time looking sadly at potential parents rejecting her in adoption interviews. They just stand up and walk away. Cue sad violin music. I expected her to turn into a three-legged, blue-eyed puppy whining for acceptance at one point.

Anyhow, Indu grows up to marry a government stooge (Tota Roy Chowdhury), and feels like she is obligated to him because he “accepted” her despite her condition. This fellow however is an integral part of the country’s problem: he is a high-ranking officer of the Congress administration that forced the infamous Emergency onto India for 21 months, curtailing press and civic freedom. His superior’s boss is Sanjay Gandhi (Neil Nitin Mukesh, conflicted between old-school eyebrow villainy and new-age evil-eyed taunts), who has maniacally started the mass-sterilization campaign to control the population.

The film actually begins with cops ransacking a village looking for fertile and fearful males to sterilize. One suspects, though, that current political tensions might have had something to do with the Gandhis never being named, and Sanjay’s role being reduced to that of a pompous caricature. Indu’s husband reminds me of Rajit Kapoor’s role as the morally compromised older brother of a rebellious Aamir Khan in Ghulam (1998).

Once she breaks free from his grasp, thanks to a couple of kids she adopts after their parents are killed in a government-sponsored slum evacuation program, Bhandarkar totally loses the plot. She becomes a social activist, which is fine. But this film goes from strange to absurd hereafter. There is zero sense of tone.

It goes from a fictitious female-centric biopic situated within the realms of a real environment to a weird Neeraj Pandey-ish cat-and-mouse heist saga (the CBI, led by a heavy Parvin Dabas, chase Indu’s social-activist outfit across cities, complete with the smart-alecky retro background score), and then even flirts with the possibility of a swashbuckling alternate-history resolution. Could they actually execute their own brand of justice?

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But then Bhandarkar remembers this is India; he could be lynched for daring to “redesign” history. It’s bad enough that he made up a rogue ‘Himmat India’ (Glorious Basterds?) activist outfit to piss off a quaking-faced Sanjay. Which is why he cops out and stops being sensationalist, becomes boring, and sticks to the large-scale reality (the Emergency ends, too) overwhelming its smaller fictionalized parts. What, then, is the point of all the drama?

Suddenly, the Emergency feels like a dominant backdrop to only tell the story of a woman who finds the strength to become independent through this trying period. Never mind that Kulhari is made to capitalize on her Pink (2016) performance by delivering another angst-ridden courtroom speech.

I felt like all was fine with the world again when another Bhandarkarism made its presence felt: cutaways of random faces (including lawyers) wiping their tears away while she spoke. They looked like idiots. Just like us in the cinema hall.

Funnily enough, the last “gossip angle” surfaced after the film was over. As we walked out and saw the director himself playing a gracious host, we became those typically shady whispering groups: “oh look, that’s Madhur Bhandarkar – the outdated storyteller with no more stories left to exploit.”

Rating:   star

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