"Ye sheher bhi mere jeevan ki tarah lagne laga tha – sukha, khushk, niras aur pyaasa…shaayad registan aise hi bante hain."
My latest subscription to Mubi has unearthed some surprisingly compelling storytelling from Bollywood from the aughts and the 2010s. One of these is the dashing Abhay Deol-starrer Manorama Six Feet Under, a slow-burn crime thriller from 2007, under-appreciated then, and considered to be quite ahead of its times. Set in dry, barren Lakhot, a small town in Rajasthan, the film begins with Abhay Deol – a junior PWD engineer moonlighting as a writer (albeit unsuccessfully) – lamenting about his life being as bleak and listless as the landscape surrounding him despite the beautiful wife (Gul Panag) and kid at home. He fears his failure to sell more than 200 copies of his detective thriller magnum opus, Manorama, and a suspension for taking bribes have relegated him to a life of obscurity amidst the vast expanse of the dessert.
A strange lady arriving at his doorstep with a strange request – that of spying on her husband, the current irrigation minister, to catch him red-handed in the throes of an affair – turns his life upside down and sets him down a dangerous path of deceit and betrayal. A canal is in the making in the village, a project driven by the irrigation minister but opposed by civil society organisations who believe the promise of water is fraudulent. While Abhay Deol's character, "SV", thinks he has managed to nail the politician, he soon realizes nothing is as it seems and that only the words "Manorama, age 32" must make sense to unlock the heart of the mystery. A slew of characters presents themselves and SV is in the midst of it all – he's finally the protagonist of his own story in the ever-changing quagmire of the plot, with twists and turns as far from straightforward as the winding desert road. The film takes its own pace to unravel and could have been a much tighter narrative but is helped along with a great background score echoing the folk music of Rajasthan.
To speak about the performances, Vinay Tripathi is very satisfactory as Brij, the moustachioed policeman who is determined to keep SV out of trouble, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui is completely wasted but shines as the small-time goon. Raima Sen's character's arc feels wholly unnecessary. Abhay Deol comes into his own in every way with his classic understated portrayal of the righteous investigator stopping at nothing to excavate the truth, but perhaps the story should have lingered a little on his personal motivations and his angst against the powerful. Why is the search for truth so important to him that he is willing to stake his own life and that of his loved ones? The symbolism of David taking on Goliath is repeatedly reinforced with the tank full of fish – that big must eat small is the natural order of things and the inescapable jungle raj. The movie may have enough bait to keep viewers interested (but maybe not enough to reel them in?), although a definite lack of pace plagues the characters. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic and I definitely expected it to make more of a bang (or do I mean splash?). But I don't believe it takes away from the experience of watching this film, which is a smart story woven with the right dose of mystery, thrill and suspense. We come to realise that while the desert may be plain it definitely hides its secrets well.