Dedh Bigha Zameen: Pratik Gandhi is the Saving Grace

Directed by Pulkit, the film is so ‘real’, it’s boring. Dedh Bigha Zameen is streaming on Jio Cinema
Dedh Bigha Zameen: Pratik Gandhi is the Saving Grace
Dedh Bigha Zameen: Pratik Gandhi is the Saving Grace

Director: Pulkit
Writer: Pulkit
Cast: Pratik Gandhi, Khushali Kumar, Prasanna Bisht, Mukesh Chhabra, Faisal Malik, Durgesh Kumar

Duration: 98 mins

Streaming on: JioCinema

Pulkit’s Dedh Bigha Zameen revolves around a simple, middle-class man named Anil (Pratik Gandhi), who sets out to sell his family land to fund the dowry for his sister’s wedding. But he gets a rude shock when he discovers that it’s under litigation. A corrupt MLA, Amar Singh, has taken possession of his land. Anil goes to the police – no help. He takes the legal route – the case is dismissed. He then decides to meet and reason with the sweet-talking politician himself. Anil’s naivete knows no bounds, and it’s sort of cool that Pratik Gandhi – the actor who turned corruption into a performative artform in Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story – is playing this poor sod. 

While watching Anil run from pillar to post, it’s hard not to think of Dibakar Banerjee’s Khosla Ka Ghosla! (2006). You patiently wait for all doors to be shut in his face. Anil is running out of options; it’s only a matter of time before he rebels. The signs are there: A land dispute, a shady broker, a modest protagonist put in an uncomfortable situation, societal apathy, colourful characters. Anil’s family, too, look unassuming enough to turn the tables and scam the system: A mother, a sister, a wife, an uncle. Maybe the women will come up with a fun plan and talk a reluctant Anil into it. Maybe they will hoodwink the MLA and his coterie. You wait for it. An hour passes. 90 minutes (of the film’s 98) pass. Anil is still fighting.

But it never comes. The long ‘setup’ never ends. Anil keeps trying, he keeps getting wronged, the tide refuses to turn. The film is so arrow-straight and sober that it almost mocks our artistic conditioning. You expect things to happen – serious revenge, playful revenge, comeuppance, justice, a beginning, an end, all those things that storytelling thrives on. Dedh Bigha Zameen, though, insists that life is no film. It’s a social-issue drama where the message is that most stories can’t afford to craft a message. The establishment is so all-consuming that not even a movie can beat it. At some level, it implies that art often sugarcoats the truth in pursuit of entertainment. Anil and his family can’t fight back because the system is blatantly rigged against them. They also can’t teach anyone a lesson because they don’t have the skill or resources to do that. At best, Anil can display brief spurts of spirit and rage. He can perhaps find purpose in his fight, but he knows it’s going to be a futile one. 

Dedh Bigha Zameen streaming on JioCinema
Dedh Bigha Zameen streaming on JioCinema

In theory, this is a worthy idea. The cast is solid, too. Two actors from Panchayat, Faisal Malik and Durgesh Kumar, play sinister cogs in the Uttar Pradesh wheel. Anil’s sister is played by Prassana Bisht, a promising actress who stood out as a rich brat on the other side of the power divide in last year’s Farrey. Neeraj Sood delivers a smooth cameo as the nearly-unseen-but-all-pervasive MLA. Pratik Gandhi is on a hot streak, and only he can make Anil’s sincerity plausible. Anil’s disillusionment is not dramatic either. When he explodes with the cop or the prospective groom’s oily father, it almost feels like he is impressed with his own dialogue. He explodes as someone who lives with three women – within the confines of his traditional but muted masculinity. At some point, he seems to be appreciating what this terrible situation is doing to him as a person – it’s forcing him to be wiser, tougher and more aware. Up until then, he just went by the rules, even agreeing to the hefty dowry in the name of manly duty.

The entire point of the film is that it has nothing new to say – fine on (news)paper, but strange on screen. I like that it riffs on our mainstream perception of heroism and social justice. The director’s previous film, Bhakshak, did something similar by refusing to leave us with a feel-good resolution. The fact is that resolutions are the luxury of fiction. But if the idea is to highlight the haplessness of an ordinary family, it’s better to explore the morality and stakes of the setting. Think Tabbar (2021), a series about a regular Punjabi family slowly paying the price for reacting to an unfair situation. You wait for Anil to do something careless, and it’s novel that he stays within his limits, but the viewing experience itself leaves much to be desired. Stories are meant to be told, not untold. I get that the title – and the treatment of this film – is a modern ode to Bimal Roy’s brand of neo-realism. But Dedh Bigha Zameen is more than half an acre short of its target. It’s so ‘real’ that it’s nearly boring. In fact, its decision to be boring is supposed to be brave. 

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