Kathal Movie Review: is a Tasteless and Tone-deaf Social Satire

The film is streaming on Netflix
Sanya Malhotra and Anant V Joshi in Kathal
Sanya Malhotra and Anant V Joshi in Kathal

Director: Yashowardhan Mishra

Writers: Ashok Mishra, Yashowardhan Mishra

Cast: Sanya Malhotra, Anant V Joshi, Rajpal Yadav, Vijay Raaz, Neha Saraf

Kathal stars Sanya Malhotra as Mahima Basor, a police inspector who leads an investigation in the prejudiced backwaters of Bundelkhand. She is an underdog by both gender and caste – an Uttar Pradesh superintendent sucks a popsicle while complimenting her figure; a politician ‘cleanses’ his carpet with holy water after she steps on it. Her situation is uncannily similar to that of Anjali Bhaati, the protagonist of the recent Dahaad, and a resilient Dalit sub-inspector who leads an investigation in the regressive backwaters of Rajasthan. (The SP flirts with her; Brahmin residents refuse to let her enter their houses). Their narrative journey is nearly identical, too. Anjali chances upon a series of missing women – and a serial killer on the prowl – while probing a fake ‘love jihad’ allegation. Mahima stumbles upon a series of missing women – and a trafficking racket – while looking into the case of two stolen jackfruits from the local MLA’s yard. In both instances, a political goose-chase leads to an actual manhunt, featuring the male gaze as the real culprit. 

The difference is the treatment. Dahaad was a long-form crime drama, while Kathal is a silly satirical comedy. The problem isn’t the choice of genre. It evokes the reasoning behind Darlings (2022) – a story of domestic violence – being a black comedy. The tone can be seen as a reclamation of voice by the oppressed; it’s a sly response to commercial Hindi cinema’s habit of mining social ills for easy laughs. The challenge is to playfully subvert the trope without succumbing to it; both Darlings and Jugjugg Jeeyo (2022) are examples of commitment to this risky tightrope walk. But Kathal ends up being an example of how wrong it feels if the craft isn’t self-aware enough. The result is a film that trivializes serious issues like casteism and misogyny instead of using humour as a weapon. 

Remember the popsicle and carpet scenes I mentioned? Those are designed to be funny here, what with Mahima’s awkward reactions to the loudness of the men opposite her. Even her introduction falls flat because it is designed to be amusing without reading the room. The context: Mahima goes undercover as a small-town lover and lures a rapist out of hiding, which in turn is followed by a goofy chase sequence. Her boss then takes credit for her casually dangerous mission in a press conference, where he keeps bungling the exact number of murders and sexual assaults. What did I miss? In what world are we supposed to unironically laugh at the insensitivity of the system?

Rajpal Yadav in Kathal
Rajpal Yadav in Kathal

If it isn’t evident yet, Kathal misinterprets satire as cheap comedy. The point of a satire is to locate the drollness of facts being stranger than fiction in society. Perhaps the intention is to be wry (like Panchayat), but the film-making is not grown-up enough to figure it out. It wants to preach about social evils, bigotry and even the crackdown on press freedom in an ‘accessible’ language. But the balance is always off. There are cartoonish sound cues, a dated background score, absurd altercations, childish dialogue and over-the-top characters. Vijay Raaz is peak Vijay Raaz as the MLA who loses his jackfruits (their metaphor, not mine), before the film deviates into the chaotic search for a girl who was slutshamed for chewing tobacco and wearing ripped jeans. Rajpal Yadav comes second to his prosthetic bald patch, as the local TV reporter who, at one point, makes a spectacle out of getting arrested for exposing a coverup. It’s a topical idea, but the writing turns him into an absconding Bhool Bhulaiyaa caricature. Things cross the border of cringe when a middle-aged constable – whose dowry gift for his daughter’s wedding is stolen – flaunts portfolio photos of his eligible daughter (“Look at her modern hairstyle and jeans!”) to a male colleague. Raghubir Yadav appears as a creepy trafficker who is presented as more of a clumsy uncle caught in the wrong line of work. At one point he even slaps the kidnapped girl, with the score suggesting that we should be chuckling at his ‘quirky’ actions. The climactic fight on a terrace is all kinds of unfunny, lacking timing as well as a sense of slapstick rhythm. There is no feel for the blurred line between narrative brevity and tonal levity.  

In the process, some of the film’s merits are lost in genre translation. Mahima’s romantic relationship with a constable – and her anxiety of working one rung above him in their field – is a nice touch, because it proves that she is not entirely above the cultural trappings of society. What melts her heart is the sight of her paramour getting thrashed because he had made a no-violence promise to her. But Sanya Malhotra, a fine actress on her day, is reduced to a sequence of poorly directed reaction shots and on-the-nose feminism. Mahima seems to be progressive for the heck of it, and not because she is a defiant product of her setting. The way she scoffs at her subordinate’s patriarchal domestic life, the way she observes the men around her, or even the way she chastises her own partner for not being a better man – all of it evokes the image of an urban hero getting frustrated with a rural environment. I can imagine Mahima logging onto Twitter after the film and sparring with a bunch of woke handles.

I also want to mention that there’s not enough of Vijay Raaz – there’s never enough of him or his deadpan disgust with everyone – even though the script correctly uses the MLA as an unwitting springboard into real-world crime. The imported jackfruits are good-looking fellows, and the delicious ‘kathal achaar’ (jackfruit pickle) can genuinely qualify as a bribe in any walk of life, not just hinterland politics. But by engaging with the previous sentence, you might also realize that I’m now clutching at straws. Kathal could have employed those straws to construct an imposing scarecrow. But it is, at best, a cautionary tale of confused themes in the age of Dahaad and Darlings. The film is ignorant and offensive in parts, but at least it is named after a giant fruit that tastes like meat and vegetables. I can think of less versatile titles for a bad movie. 

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