Promising actors sleep-walking through tired films. Should we make a list? To that I’ll submit Piyush Mishra from Kanjoos Makhichoos, a performance so bored of its smallness, lulling through the familiar motions, with Mishra’s voice — which sounds as though we caught him mid-ramble, sped up, breathless — reacting to flood and family with the same stoicness.
Flood and family, that is how Kanjoos Makhichoos, set in Lucknow, written and directed by Vipul Mehta, begins. The miserly Jamnaprasad Pandey (Kumal Kemmu) and his wife, the “chota machine gun” Madhuri (Shweta Tripathi Sharma) send his parents Gangaprasad Pandey (Mishra) and Saraswati Pandey (Alka Amin) for the Chaardham Yatra. When the old couple are gallivanting on the river banks courting blessings from demanding gods, the clouds burst and landslides wreck the landscape. When nothing is found of his parents for over two weeks— no body, no phone call — Jamnaprasad accepts the government’s compensation for their death: Rs. 14 lakhs. It seems to solve a lot of the problems they had, but as money often does, causes just as many problems. Because in a flip of a miracle, Jamnaprasad’s parents turn up, and a bureaucratic jalebi of swings and swirls follows.
What I find singularly troubling about this geographic genre is that it pretends it is fighting for realism, that it is the voice of a demographic often chunked off the big screen, that it is taking cinema deeper into India, not diffusing it farther away. But in fact, this cinema is no more bizarre, no more fantastical, no more aspirational than the glittering dreamy films it seeks to contest against. There is a sweetness to this aspirational tone in Kamjoos Makhichoos — of a Muslim man, too, yearning to go for Chardham, of an image of a mosque sneaking into the film, one where bursts of Lucknow keep emerging. This is a film untouched by bigotry even as it is set in the very hotbed of it — middle class, upper caste Uttar Pradesh yearning for pilgrimage. Isn’t that fantasy enough?
By setting a film in a crumbling house, by bestowing cutting accents — where “RIP” becomes “rape” — by renouncing beauty and glamour, you don’t become real. Realism is not about stripping the foundation and concealer. Realism is not anti-beauty. Realism is the astounding belief that the world — without exaggeration or winding exegesis — is enough.
Besides, the Lucknow it champions is such a strangely soulless city, one that seems to only matter in the forced accents and tame top-shots. I am thinking of the everyday poetry of a film like Gulabo Sitabo, also set in Lucknow, or the pungent infusion of time and place in a film like Tanu Weds Manu (2011). Besides the film chomps on the bit with its title. With its insecure hand, it immediately establishes Jamnaprasad’s miserliness — his kanjoosi. Why is he like this? The film offers an explanation, that on his wedding day he heard his father’s wish to go to the Chaardham and so started saving up by upturning his personality into a miser. But this explanation is soon forgotten, with Jamnaprasad’s kanjoosi later treated as an innate personality flaw that must be recast as a comic virtue. What can you make of a film that cannot even treat its protagonist’s titular character description with the dignity and stability it deserves?
Kanjoos Makhichoos spins another illusion. That of narrative shifting sands, with the film making sharp turns from humour to pathos to smarting caper to cloying social commentary. But a film that keeps swerving across the emotional range must be smart enough and light on its feet to allow such a jerking motion. To move between sadness and humour is to make us feel both sad and humoured. The film, having the capacity for neither, attempts both with a reckless, relentless hand.
Besides, we can see through the film’s construction. The moment the parents are declared dead by the government, we know they are not in fact dead. The grieving, the searching, the weeping that follows rings hollow, as though you are seeing through someone’s makebelieve mourning. Kemmu’s and Sharma’s performance — studied accents with sincere eyes — can merely express what the characters are going through. That feeling cannot make the jump beyond the screen, because the writing holds them back with its charmless chokehold. This keeps happening in the film, where you are constantly ahead of its emotional logic, and this makes watching the film, largely, an exercise in impatience.