Director: Satish Kaushik
Writer: Imtiyaz Hussain
Cast: Pankaj Tripathi, Monal Gajjar, Mita Vashisht, Satish Kaushik, Neha Chauhan
Streaming on: ZEE5
Making a bland, boring, textbookish and simplistic TV movie with Pankaj Tripathi in the lead role takes some doing. But Kaagaz – directed by Satish Kaushik and co-produced by Salman Khan (whose involvement in the project is punctuated by a pointless poetry narration) – proves that impossible is nothing. This is the kind of dated social interest story that marks the presence of a politician with an item song featuring a gyrating girl repeating the words "saiyaan" and "bazaar" while playfully fending off lecherous drunks at a party. The datedness of a random item song centered on a character who never appears again pales in comparison to that of a romantic track sung by Udit Narayan and Alka Yagnik – sincerely, without a hint of irony. I get the novelty of movies that try to look like the era they're set in (Kaagaz is set between 1977 and 1992), but here the resemblance is entirely accidental. The title (meaning "paper") might have given the makers a limp excuse to go old-school, but screenplays aren't written on typewriters anymore.
Kaagaz is based on the life of Uttar Pradesh farmer Lal Bihari Mritak who, after being officially declared 'dead' by relatives who stole his ancestral land, fought an 18-year-old war of attrition against the absurdities of Indian bureaucracy to prove that he was…alive. Given Hindi cinema's long-standing allergy to subtlety, Tripathi's character is of course named Bharat. He is not a farmer but a bandmaster in a remote village, thankfully for reasons that don't include forcefitting the pun "mera toh band baj gaya" into the script. When gullible old Bharat Lal applies for identity proof to secure a bank loan, he discovers the glitch in records in an allegedly comical scene where the term 'sarkaari' is repeated 7 times in case we can't fathom the villainy of government procedure. The writing stops short of screening the pensioner track of Lage Raho Munnabhai or the entire film Gour Hari Dastaan: The Freedom File for Bharat – because of course it's the 1970s. (Forget that the films released later, laptops definitely didn't exist back then).
For the next 100 minutes, we see Bharat Lal going through the motions of a dry Wikipedia-level biographical drama. He tries everything, from kidnapping his nephew so that an FIR is filed against his name to running for elections against Rajiv Gandhi in Amethi and even holding his own funeral, and yet his journey resembles the sarkaari machinery he is up against. There is not an ounce of imagination, urgency or sophistication about the filmmaking. Mita Vashisht appears as a minister, the enigmatic Neha Chauhan plays a journalist, and Satish Kaushik himself plays a jolly lawyer (doesn't he always?) who for some reason decides to narrate Bharat's tale to the viewers – as if making a film wasn't enough.
It's fashionable to victimize great actors in terrible films, but Pankaj Tripathi's overexposure across mediums contributes to the jadedness of the film. He could have done this in his sleep, and even though the story (and lead role) sounds attractive 'on paper,' it doesn't take much to recognize that the makers aren't exactly representatives of new-age Indian cinema. For better or worse, exceptional performers like Tripathi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Rajkummar Rao and Sanjay Mishra hold the burden of responsibility to the dormant movie-loving souls they've awakened over the last decade. While bills must still be paid, and there's no dearth of opportunity in showbiz anymore, gifted actors must constantly revise the art of challenging themselves. Producers must approach them as though they're wearing a 'Handle With Care' sticker rather than barnstorming their dates to cash in on lost time.
It's also easy to get complacent in the OTT era, when even a sigh of yours holds more method than entire acting careers, which is why playing a "common man" is a privilege one should only afford under watchful eyes. While the showy Mirzapurs, Gurgaons, Sacred Games and Criminal Justices are designed to mine Tripathi's range, it's average outings like these – the sighs between the words – that tend to test an infallible legacy. Over the last few years, I can't help but feel that there's more to his ability, so much more, a top gear that most films aren't equipped to harness. Maybe I'm just being greedy and impatient. (I sound like Professor Gerald Lambeau to Tripathi's Will Hunting). Or maybe paper is just wasteful. Save our forests, go digital.