Directors: Kaushik Ganguly, Gurvinder Singh, Bhaskar Hazarika
Writer: Durgesh Singh
Cast: Johnny Lever, Jisshu Sengupta, Jitendra Kumar, Nimisha Sajayan, Boloram Das, Preeti Hansraj Sharma
Number of episodes: 3
Streaming on: Zee5
Anthology films blew up during the pandemic. Streaming platforms were churning them out at an alarming rate. Lantrani – a collection of three shorts – is a reminder of why that moment passed. It’s not that they’re poor or forgettable, but there’s something dated about this Zee5 production (not the first time I’ve written this sentence). It’s not so much in terms of ideas or execution, but more in terms of a tonal uniformity – a physical ‘oneness’ of sorts – that defeats the purpose of an anthology’s artistic diversity. The Hindi-centric theme of Lantrani – stranger-than-fiction realities from hinterland India – makes it hard to tell one team from the next.
The three directors are acclaimed alternative voices from Bengali (Kaushik Ganguly), Punjabi (Gurvinder Singh) and Assamese cinema (Bhaskar Hazarika). But there’s an incompatibility between the stories and its storytellers. Perhaps it’s because the writer, Durgesh Singh (Gullak), is the same – and his TVF sensibilities somewhat swallow the distinct voices of the makers. Not to mention that three is, both literally and figuratively, a terribly odd number for an anthology. It’s the film equivalent of a two-match Test series in cricket that isn’t long enough to derive a fair result. It leaves no room for winning and losing. Let’s go from bottom to top, so that we can end on a semi-positive note, but also because I’m trying to be a glass-half-full person these days.
Best known for the unsettling and compelling Assamese film Aamis (2019), Hazarika has directed Sanitized Samachar, which is the weakest of the lot. It’s almost fitting that this is indeed a pandemic story. In the throes of lockdown, a cash-strapped news channel scrambles to shoot a primetime bulletin for a shady hand-sanitizer sponsor with their Covid-positive star anchor. The film unfolds like a skit-level social satire. It tries too hard to be quirky – whether it’s the idiosyncratic employees or the narrative punchlines (the ‘irony’ of a mask flashing a product’s name is so 2008). Maybe it’s deliberate that some of the characters sound like old-school Bollywood villains – the faceless sponsor boss, the goons breaking in to collect rent – but the offbeat-ness is both predictable and jarring.
On paper, the staging of the chaotic studio is fine, as is the B-grade conception of the telecast, complete with corny mythological metaphors. But movies aren’t made on paper. The film-making feels a bit uncomfortable; the comic timing is off and there’s little rhythm to the silliness. For instance, the editor-in-chief is introduced as a wheelchair-laden man only so that a cop can crack the pun “wheelchair journalism” and laugh like he’s in the middle of a bad stand-up routine. All of which is to say the wordplay of the title should’ve been a sign.
Gurvinder Singh’s Dharna Mana Hai is cursed with wordplay too, but its world – which often looks like a Panchayat episode – is a little less awkward. It stars Jitendra Kumar and Nimisha Sajayan as a rural couple who stage a dharna outside a district development office (DDO). Their protest is against the casteism that has denied the Dalit wife her rights as the new sarpanch of her village; the male members of the panch have blocked her ambitions to develop the place. The film revolves around the spectacle of the protest itself. The stubborn couple starts living on the footpath, attracting media attention and hostile stares, while also straining to communicate their truth in the language of silence. The performances are solid: Sajayan (The Great Indian Kitchen (2021)), in particular, tells stories with her face. Kumar is convincing as the supportive partner, gamely subverting the Raghubir Yadav-Neena Gupta track from Panchayat.
But you can tell that the director – known for his brooding and meticulously staged dramas like Anhe Ghore Da Daan (2011) and Chauthi Koot (2015) – struggles to navigate tragicomic territory, straddling the fence between levity and gravity. Some of the design is clumsy: The banter between two government employees; the woman’s experience in a public bathroom; the awry background score; the slow-mo camera movement during the climax; the DDO officer being scolded by his boss on the phone. The standout scene is more visual – featuring a montage of the police ‘treating’ the couple to a day out in town (zoo, movie, arcade, restaurant) to keep them away during a superior’s visit. Everything one needs to understand about the India of this film is contained in this moment. The rest – like the film-making – is silent noise.
Kaushik Ganguly’s Hud Hud Dabang does a better job of balancing absurdity with despair. Case in point: A courtroom greets an errant cow with reverence seconds after a lawyer insults a man on trial and calls him an animal; the ‘criminal’ then ruefully wishes he were actually an animal. Some of the dialogue and treatment (like the sardonic beeping of names to convey social erasure) is heavy-handed, and a slapstick chase sequence adds nothing. But Ganguly, whose most recent full-length feature is the masterful Ardhangini (2023), is able to make the film work because of its unorthodox cast. Famous funnyman Johnny Lever stars as a retiring small-town cop tasked with transporting a morose inmate (Jisshu Sengupta) to court. Much to his delight, the pen-pushing officer – who has spent his career ‘maintaining’ things – is given a gun to use and a bullet to ride. Lever’s face-acting helps create the impression of a policeman who can finally imitate his favourite movie heroes. He has to make do with a scruffy rope instead of stylish handcuffs, making for a neat tussle between trust and naivety.
When he casually unties the inmate’s hands for lunch or misplaces the gun, it feels like the film is teasing our perception of the veteran comedian: Is the character foolish or just human? But Lever finds a pitch that suggests he isn’t bumbling so much as decent – a trait that, towards the end, provides a glimpse of an underutilized dramatic actor. The climax shifts focus, implying that a feel-good story always pales in comparison to the bitter persecutions of life. It’s not exactly a glass-half-full ending. But pretending to be positive is worse than succumbing to cynicism – denial is the deformed sibling of hope. There goes my resolution. Perhaps it’s the only way to round off an anthology of mismatched vignettes.