Director: Vijay Maurya
Writers: Vijay Maurya, Payal Arora
Cast: Jackie Shroff, Neena Gupta, Abhishek Chauhan, Monika Panwar, Faisal Malik, Rakhi Sawant
Duration: 127 mins
Streaming on: Prime Video
I’m wary of films that romanticize a big city. Especially those with a note that purrs: “Mumbai is the protagonist”. The gaze tends to be a little irrational – like a survivor choosing to vindicate an abusive relationship. The place becomes a narrative concept rather than a lived-in reality. It’s why a movie like Tu Hai Mera Sunday (2018) is a rarity. An ordinary desire – grown men struggling to find a space for their Sunday football games – cuts through the seemingly extraordinary land of dreams. The people are like a ball being kicked around to reach transient goals. I remember calling it a feel-good tragedy, where characters learn to find compassion in the art of adjustment. Vijay Maurya’s Mast Mein Rehne Ka is a bittersweet companion piece. It’s a well-worded resignation letter disguised as a love letter. A feel-bad comedy if you will, where characters look for solace in the art of survival.
Mast Mein Rehna Ka has four protagonists at different stages of their own stories. The film opens with a 75-year-old widower named Kamath (Jackie Shroff), who spends his days feigning a sense of routine and purpose. He is a recluse, but not by choice. (In a parallel universe, Kamath and Saajan Fernandes from The Lunchbox are fast friends). His loneliness is so crushing that when a burglar breaks into his home one night, Kamath begs to be killed. He begs to be relieved of his existence. It’s a heartbreaking moment, because here’s a man who has lost the courage to crumple on his own terms. The local inspector advises him to be more social so that, one morning, someone cares enough to discover his body. In turn, Kamath decides to keep a watchful eye on fellow old-timers. This puts him on the path to Prakash Kaur (Neena Gupta), a 60-something Punjabi woman who has returned to Mumbai from a compromised life in Canada. All she wants is respect and a familiar setting. As it turns out, the same thief breaks into her apartment.
The narrative baton is passed to this thief, a young ladies’ tailor named Nanhe (Abhishek Chauhan), who resorts to robbing old citizens in moments of desperation. Nanhe tries to embrace an honest living as a costume designer for a Bollywood dance troupe. But the cycle of debt and luck is tough, and his hustle keeps relapsing. His journey fuses with that of Rani (Monica Panwar), a professional beggar who doubles up as a dancer, an escort, a ragpicker and a small-time crook. She’s a hardened egg. Multiple paths keep crossing in a way that reveals Mumbai as an unwitting matchmaker. It’s almost like the city pushes them towards each other – turning them into pairs of two – to save on space and resources.
The act of following is a recurring motif in this film. Nanhe stakes out potential victims to see if they’re worth stealing from. Rani and Nanhe follow each other into a shared future. Kamath’s ‘surveillance’ means that he stalks a stranger like Prakash every day until she lashes out at him. When they become friends, Kamath and Prakash observe and follow fascinating characters from the park. They start breaking into empty homes for kicks – eating and drinking in them, amusing themselves with the eccentricities of these flats. It’s their way of meeting new people without actually meeting them. At some level, following becomes a language of pursuing: ambition, friendship, love and company. It also becomes the grammar of surviving: Isolation, pain, poverty and the past. The locations – public parks, traffic signals, beaches, slums and roadside stalls – provide a glimpse into the humanity behind the facade. It’s like people are constantly navigating a city of backgrounds, wondering if they’ll ever be the main character of their own lives.
Some of it succumbs to broad strokes. Like, for instance, Prakash Kaur’s son – a pony-tailed and arrogant NRI who behaves like someone who resented all those Baghban reruns. Or like the initial portions of Rani, where she looks like she’s mistakenly wandered away from the set of Madhur Bhandarkar’s Traffic Signal. Some of the Marathi-speaking cops and prisoners look straight out of a Rajkumar Hirani crowd-pleaser. Nanhe’s early scenes – where he gets fired for matter-of-factly measuring a client’s bust – make the mistake of staging him as a dimwitted simpleton. It’s an old-school but lazy way of justifying the choices he makes. A few of the peripheral faces – an evil pimp, a landlord, a security guard – also feel like they’ve been derived from movie stereotypes.
Another way of processing the Bollywood hangover of these characters is to look at them as manifestations of the city’s relationship with Bombay cinema. Are films inspired by the place, or does the place start to imitate the films it inspires? Where does reality end and fiction begin? When someone dashes off to the airport to stop their person from leaving, there’s a part of them that hopes for life to unfold like the movies. There’s a part that hopes for a missed flight and a second chance. When a loved one dies, a part of the person left behind wonders if their loneliness is a mainstream or indie trait. Given the cinematic compatibility of Mumbai, it’s no surprise that its stories look to other stories for inspiration – life is simply a byproduct of its telling.
The infectious energy of Mast Mein Rehna Ka extends to its performances. Both the younger actors – Abhishek Chauhan and Monica Panwar – transcend the formulaic nature of their characters. Panwar, in particular, has striking screen presence; it lends Rani the sort of tough-tender duality that drives their unlikely bond. The casting of Rakhi Sawant as a version of herself – a quintessential striver in a sea of posers – is a masterstroke. She fits into the Mumbai of this film perfectly, without being patronized or judged. On the contrary, it becomes a tribute to many like her. Her idiosyncrasies are filmed with affection and admiration alike.
Jackie Shroff is wonderful as Kamath, a man who is trying to conquer his fear of attachment in the twilight of his life. You can tell that his pride has been dismantled over the years, and all that’s left is a pensioner looking for a reason to keep going. The toll of living and losing shows in his gait – in the way he looks, speaks, walks and bashfully smiles. Ditto for Neena Gupta, who plays Prakash as a spiritual descendent of her role in The Threshold (where a North Indian homemaker gathers the strength to walk out on a patriarchal family). She’s walked out: Now what? Gupta reveals Prakash’s boisterous nature as a coping mechanism – one that, you would suspect, allows her to treat her own voice as an illusion of human company. It’s the sonic equivalent of looking in the mirror, seeing ‘another’ figure in the room and feeling less lonely.
The two veteran actors feed off each other in a way that legitimizes the need for companionship over the novelty of romance. The film resists the trappings of love, instead sticking to a platonic understanding between two bodies that would rather follow than meet. While Rani and Nanhe seek a new beginning, Kamath and Prakash are looking for a new ending.
The last few minutes of Mast Mein Rehne Ka (Mumbaiya slang for “don’t worry, be happy”) made me choke up a bit. Perhaps it’s a rant at the airport, which uncloaks how little there is to distinguish between Mumbai as a dream and a nightmare. Or perhaps it’s the neat coming together of strands that were often a heartbeat away from reducing the film to an omnibus. That’s the thing, though. I don’t know if the tears were happy or sad. Somewhere in between lies this affecting film – one that at once reflects the cultural specificity and emotional ambiguity of the modern Mumbai Movie. Not worrying, after all, isn’t the same as being happy.