Aatmapamphlet Review: A Must-See Satire That Is As Funny As it is Insightful

After getting selected for last year’s Berlin Film Festival and doing the rounds of the festival circuit, the film is now streaming on Prime Video
Aatmapamphlet Review: A Must-See Satire That Is As Funny As it is Insightful

Director: Aashish Avinash Bende

Writer: Paresh Mokashi

Cast: Om Bendkhale, Pranjali Shrikant, Chetan Wagh

Duration: 90 Minutes

Available on: Prime Video

When Aamir Khan as an alien in PK (2014) monologued at us to show audiences how our society is a tapestry of hypocrisy, false beliefs and commercialization of religion, it was clear that this was part of a project at edutainment. Aatmapamphlet also delivers a monologue. In fact, the first 25 minutes of the film have no dialogue. There’s only a voiceover accompanying scenes from the life of a boy who shares the same name as the film’s first-time director Aashish Avinash Bende. This monologue is also sprinkled with socio-political themes, but writer Paresh Mokashi opts for wit and subtlety instead of the didacticism of Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijat Joshi’s earnest writing in PK.

Funny, clever and idealistic, Aatmapamphlet follows the journey of Ashish (Om Bendkhale) from birth to late adolescence. Ashish is an unremarkable, regular Indian child. As he tells us early on, he’s too common to have something as grand as an autobiography — that’s for freedom fighters and others blessed with greatness — which is why this film is named after the humble pamphlet instead. Early in the film, Mokashi and Bende find different and amusing ways to show the everyman experiences alongside significant events in recent Indian history, ranging from Indira Gandhi becoming prime minister to the Indian cricket team winning the World Cup. The deliberate disconnect between Ashish’s life and what’s happening in the country is often hilarious.

Underneath the Love Story

At its core, the film revolves around Aashish’s attempts to confess his adolescent love for Shrushti (Pranjali Shrikant), who studies in the same school as Ashish. While most people know about love at first sight, our romance begins with “love at first hand”, when Shrushti accidentally holds Ashish’s hand during a school play. This romantic subplot is a vehicle to explore deeper themes surrounding innocence and the societal influences that shape individuals as they mature. One of the funniest episodes in the film is when Ashish and his devoted friend Borya (Chetan Wagh) and his team embark on a mission to woo Srushti in English, a choice that is gently mocked by the voiceover. Bende skillfully guides the ensemble cast through increasingly risky and occasionally uncomfortable scenes, maintaining a delicate balance between satire and commentary.

Through the characters' experiences, the film scrutinises how children are influenced and sometimes corrupted by religious ideology as they grow older. It delves into the notion of tribalism, where individuals become entrenched in their own beliefs, as well as the way social hierarchies of caste and cultural forces like religions can affect people, often limiting their instinct for empathy and understanding. For instance, through Ashish's friendship with a boy from an upper caste, the narrative highlights how children often form bonds without being conscious of social hierarchies or prejudices. As Ashish and his friends are exposed to the diversity of beliefs in Indian society, they briefly experience alliances and rivalries based on these differences. However, director Bende portrays this phase as short-lived, emphasizing the resilience of childhood friendships and the ability to overcome societal divisions.

A Fantastic Cast

The attention to detail and foreshadowing in these scenes add depth to the narrative, allowing the audience to reflect on the broader themes of the film. By using backgrounds to convey deeper meaning, Bende adds layers to a simple story and delivers one of the most charming satires we’ve seen in recent times. Ketaki Saraf and Bhimrao Mude deliver excellent performances as Aai and Baba, Wagh's portrayal of Borya adds humor to the narrative and leaves a lasting impression. The young actors, Khushi Hajare and Manas Tondwalkar, shine in their roles as young Shrushti and young Ashish, while Pranjali Shrikant brings a pleasant presence to her character of grown up Shrushti. Bendkhale as Ashish captures the character's innocence and depth effectively.

Using humor and whimsy with intelligence, Aatmapamphlet delivers a sharp critique of earnest, message-driven cinema. The film's brilliance lies in its ability to be interpreted as either a comedy or a tragedy, reflecting a narrative that unfolds in a country that may exist only in the realm of imagination.

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