Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Cast: Sanya Malhotra, Radhika Madan, Sunil Grover, Namit Das
What I love about Vishal Bhardwaj is that he is a champion of flawed characters. Bollywood’s usual wholesome, pretty people who live happily ever after don’t interest him. His movies are propelled by extreme personalities who are racked by doubt and fear, lust and greed. Think of Maqbool and Nimmi in Maqbool or Susanna Anna-Marie Johannes in 7 Khoon Maaf or Ghazala Meer in Haider or Julia in Rangoon. To this pantheon of deliciously twisted protagonists, Vishal adds Champa Kumari or Badki and Genda Kumari or Chhutki, sisters in a Rajasthan village who routinely try to kill each other.
We first see them when they are toddlers exchanging curses – among other things, one calls the other loose motions. Within minutes, they have grown up and are exchanging blows. Anything can trigger war – beedis, boyfriends, differing ambitions. Badki dreams of running a dairy while Chhutki wants to be a teacher and run a school. Their hapless father, only known as bechara bapu, tries to keep the peace while Dipper, the local troublemaker, does his best to keep the fight going. Because, he says, it’s entertaining.
Perhaps for him but sadly, not so much for us. Pataakha is based on a short story called Do Behnein by Charan Singh Pathik. Vishal, aided well by his actors and crew, creates a colorful, textured world. Sanya Malhotra and Radhika Madan, who makes her film debut, work ferociously hard to become Badki and Chhutki. Both are fine actors who nail the difficult dialect but this is also a physically demanding role – the sisters are constantly punching each other, rolling in mud or screaming. With blackened teeth and strong body language, they become the characters.
But this startling transformation doesn’t have enough impact because for much of Pataakha, the sisters stay one note. It’s admirable that Vishal has the courage to create an entire film around such unlikable characters – Badki and Chhutki are rude, headstrong, stubborn and spiteful. You don’t often see women like this in Hindi cinema. The problem is that they aren’t nuanced or particularly interesting. After the first hour, you start to feel like you are trapped in a room with two wailing banshees. It’s absolutely exhausting.
Vijay Raaz as the weary bapu and a nicely sleazy Sunil Grover as Dipper also make a valiant effort but there simply isn’t enough to bite into. Like 7 Khoon Maaf, which was also based on a short story, Pataakha is a slim story stretched till it snaps. Dipper explains that the sisters are like India and Pakistan, born from the same mother yet constantly at loggerheads. But the metaphor weighs too heavily on the thin narrative. Vishal’s music with lyrics by Gulzar beautifully captures the boisterous, vibrant atmosphere of the film – I especially enjoyed ‘Balma’ and ‘Gali Gali’. There are a few laugh-out-loud lines but mostly Pataakha hurtles forward like a runaway train, which derails in the second half. Once the sisters are married, the story alternates between scheming and screaming. The narrative becomes even more repetitive and labored.
It’s cacophony without juice or magic.