Director: Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi
Cast: Sunny Deol, Sakshi Tanwar, Ravi Kishan, Saurabh Shukla, Mukesh Tiwari, Rajendra Gupta, Mithilesh Chaturvedi
The only thing satirical about Mohalla Assi is that it’s too verbose, too simplistic and too densely staged to be a satire. It is the cinematic equivalent of six self-important men routinely discussing everything from religion to politics and world peace at the local teashop – ironically, a scene that features repeatedly in the film. Each of them is like that annoying neighbourhood kook who simply cannot shut up; not passing an expert comment on the air that surrounds them is worse than religious blasphemy. They don’t speak as much as they “recite” their opinions in the form of self-righteous sermons, as if the camera were forever framing them for a monologue. Not surprisingly, Mr. Monologue himself, Sunny Deol, plays one of these self-appointed guardians of Indian morality.
Shot more than six years ago, based on author Kashi Nath Singh’s Hindi novel Kashi Ka Ashi, this dated film – a television-level crafting of the reluctant 1990s globalization of India’s famous pilgrimage city, Banaras – stars Deol as a defiant traditionalist, an orthodox Brahmin Sanskrit teacher named Dharamnath Pandey. Pandey takes great pride in peppering his chaste “Har Har Mahadev” discussions with the occasional “Bh*sadike” – a linguistic trait that, we are informed, is an intricate part of Assi’s stubborn cultural heritage. He despises the exoticization of the ghats, and opposes the influx of moneyed white tourists looking for rooms in his locality.
His wife, Savitri (Sakshi Tanwar), considers his holier-than-thou stance to be the sole cause of their bleak financial condition. Who can blame her? He communicates like a walking-talking Amar Chitra Katha comic. Every other resident, including the silver-tongued tourist guide (Ravi Kishan; he lends some parity to the “Bh*sadike” rants) and the frustrated neighbour (Saurabh Shukla), is wary of his ancient attitude. Pandey’s transformation, against the hurried backdrop of historical events such as the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, is the prime focus of this 122-minute anti-movie.
I call it an “anti-movie” because there is virtually nothing about Dwivedi’s film adaptation that adds to the viewer’s perception of text and subtext. Every frame is designed to be heard, not seen. People speak like they are being paid per word – there is not a second of introspective silence and artistic awareness. He merely depicts his characters as literal voices for different views, rather than as flesh-and-blood relics caught in the whirlwind of commercialization. Characters behave like wind-up dolls airdropped straight from the local Ram Leela naatak. Foreigners – especially an attractive American student – are displayed so frivolously that they seem like a plan to avenge the way big Hollywood productions caricaturize South Asians. Once the Brahmins realize that they cannot resist the temptation of dollar-earning tenants, the film starts to look more like an ‘Airbnb Origins’ biopic. Either way, evolution has never been so superficial.
The director, Dr. Dwivedi, the man behind 1990s TV serials like Chanakya, is at a disadvantage the moment it becomes obvious that his lead is unable to walk in the footsteps of those from his first two films – Manoj Bajpayee in the period epic Pinjar, and Adil Hussain in the palatable political satire, Zed Plus. It is quite endearing that Deol, an action hero who has consistently failed at comedy, even considered the idea of challenging himself with a role far removed from his chest-thumping oeuvre. He looks even stranger with genuine performers like Saurabh Shukla, Ravi Kishan and Sakshi Tanwar opposite him.
In his hands, Pandey turns into an intellectually challenged simpleton (“Ganga is not a river; she is my mother”) aching to course-correct his environment with Gadar-style violence. Whereas the character might have probably been written as a coming-of-age protagonist who must adapt or perish with the times. It’s no surprise, then, that the long-in-the-cans Mohalla Assi mirrors his struggle – it outrages, and outrages, against the dying of light.