A film junkie now gets hooked on to different streaming platforms — for the good, bad, and indifferent movies that we now watch at home, cursing the dicey internet connection when it stalls at the most crucial moment. A new occupational hazard we have to put up with. Three films vied for attention in August. But funnily and fittingly enough, the least advertised film was the best. A good, engaging film can survive the lack of media hype. Rajat Kapoor follows up the quirky, philosophical quest of Ankhon Dekhi, set in a lower middle class family of a small town in the Hindi heartland, with Kadakh. It is an urbane and clever ensemble film where conversation is as, if not more, important than the plot. Cleverness, in its best sense, is the key to Kadakh.
Kapoor lives up to expectations of something different with a nice mix of genres, a film that stirs up a knockout cocktail right for a Diwali party in a middlingly-upscale Mumbai apartment. The hosts are Sunil (Ranvir Shorey), a corporate type, and his wife, Malti (Mansi Multani). A calculated shocker of a prelude to the evening, is a stranger who persuades Sunil (who is alone at home) to let him in for an urgent chat. The stranger, Raghav, informs Sunil that he is Chaya’s husband — Chaya being the colleague with whom Sunil is having an affair. Claiming to be calm and accepting of the situation, Raghav pulls out a gun and shoots himself. What a starter to a party. Malti comes in carrying flowers for the party, and Sunil passes off the dead body as that of a man he had fired, who then shot himself in a state of depression. He stops her from calling the police. Even as they are hiding the body in a large chest in the bedroom, close friends have started trooping in to help with preparations. Sunil is in a visible state of funk but he can’t send the guests away.
We can’t think of a more inauspicious start to an evening of celebration and conviviality. The blend of reality and the surreal during the simultaneous ongoing conversations in different corners, is not smooth. There are a few splutters and oddities that stick out like an afterthought in an otherwise skilfully written screenplay. The jazz background score hints at the shifting moods of the group. A thriller with a dead body that must be hidden and then disposed of, where adultery raises its ugly head, Raghav’s ghost appears during a poker game to harass Sunil, and old friendships are tested.
The subtitle is “a-moral story”. Is it a moral tale (with an unusual hyphen) or an amoral one that is ambivalent about definitions of morality? We are intrigued, and it only deepens as the film progresses like a planned party veering off course with unwanted guests, almost forgotten relatives, Chaya, the femme fatale looking forlorn, and a mysterious French woman (Kalki Koechlin) as the surprise plus-one of the newly free Joshi looking for action. She adds spice with her ability to sense auras and read minds — an unusual variation of the usual party tricks — palm reading, Tarot, astrology et al. It is these minor details and the casualness with which they are brought in, that creates an outer ring to the dynamics of the core group that stays, after the other guests have left. They have to clean up the mess left by the dead body.
The means to dispose the body is courtesy Rahul’s young son. First, acid, that is shot down, and then the casual suggestion of the railway track. What is shocking is how the young boy seems to take the whole situation as a game. Is this part of the amorality Kapoor is hinting at? That it starts so young? This amorality doesn’t make us uneasy but can be disingenuously engaging. Does it tell us something about ourselves? Not that an inconvenient dead body is new. It was central to Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Around the same time was the Cuban classic Death of a Bureaucrat. Above all, the Hitchcockian trope from Rope used by a lot of others. Now, Kapoor owns it with an updated homage — cynically, judgement suspended. He makes sure we will remember the people, their conversations, and attitudes. A sustained dark comedy is rare in our cinema. Kadakh adds to the distinguished, limited list.
Kadakh shows us the delights of complexity that is not really all that complex on reflection. Mee Raqsam chooses the gentleness of heart-warming simplicity and yet avoids the perils of being simplistic. It is a thin line, and Baba Azmi avoids crossing it adroitly for a first-time director. This approach inherits the spirit of a film like Sujata, where the blood of a Dalit adopted daughter saves the life of her mother who holds her Brahminhood above humanism. Mee Raqsam dances its way to the much needed message in our divisive times: art transcends religion.
Azmi’s sister, Shabana, presents the film and the screen flashes the line; the great Kaifi Azmi had wistfully asked if a film could be in his native Mijwan? This nondescript place comes alive under the gaze of the camera that captures the winding gallies, adjoining terraces and most importantly, the mohol (atmosphere, ambience, ethos don’t convey the richness of the Urdu word) of a community chained to orthodoxy. At the heart of a beguiling charmer is a father’s love for his 15-year-old daughter who is in love with Bharatnatyam. The problem is the implacable hostility of the Muslim community at large, and of his late wife’s family to Maryam (Aditi Subedi) learning a dance that was practiced by Devdasis and bhakti for a pantheon of Hindu gods. How can a poor tailor Salim (Danish Husain) withstand the collective diktat of a disapproving quam? His livelihood depends on them.
Unlike Secret Superstar, where the vindictive, uncaring father quotes Islamic strictures to forbid his talented daughter from singing, Mee Raqsam’s father stands like a gentle giant against the entire community that disapproves of his daughter pursuing a Hindu art. It bars his entry to the mosque. You can bar me from the masjid but not take me away from Allah, is his soft, but determined reply. Mee Raqsam’s strength is not a melodramatic rhetoric, but quiet determination and dignity. This is more effective than high pitched rants. The prelude shows ailing mother Sakina teach mudras to her enraptured daughter. After her death, Salim notices Aditi unconsciously practising mudras with her agile fingers, her face filled with rare sense of peace. There is a dance school on the other side, across a bridge — symbolic of the divide — and the devoted teacher Uma (Sudeepta Singh) welcomes Maryam and soon notices how good she is. Mariam performs with another talented girl at the guru’s house, where guests, including the patron of the Natyashala, Jaypraksh (Rakesh Chaturvedi Om) is insultingly patronising about a Muslim girl learning an Indian dance. Isn’t a Muslim Indian, is the quick riposte from his teenaged daughter, This upholder of Indian culture — read Hindu — is annoyed that his daughter is addicted to Sufi music. Another well-heeled lady comments that Maryam’s parents must be educated.
Bigotry is equal and opposite, till an innately civilized Salim finds a courteous way to combat it, determined to let his daughter have her dream. The loving but disdainful khaala (Shraddha Kaul) asks Salim: “Will you make your daughter a tawaif?” It is an insult to her late sister’s memory. The lone sympathiser is Ashfaq (Kaustubh Shukla), a young auto rickshaw driver. Ashfaq is resourceful. He and his friends get “stylish” shirts tailored by Salim. He accompanies the father-daughter to the performance, where once again, they are humiliated, and made to enter through the back.
Baba Azmi picks out the pinpricks from condescending Hindus, but his main target is the Muslim community’s obduracy, equating a classical dance as Hindu. It is easy to blame the majority (that has ghettoised Muslims), but it takes courage to confront the narrow prejudices of the minority. Salim is dubbed kaafir, but it is the “apostate” who upholds the Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb that Kaifi Azmi symbolised and advocated all his life. Mee Raqsam celebrates this legacy with sincerity and a lot of heart, if not sophistication. For the fairytale finale, it is this beautiful fusion of Sufi and Carnatic classical music (take a bow, Ripul Sharma) that inspires Maryam to perform as like a possessed diva. This is yet another reiteration that art knows no religion. The custodians of Hindustani music have been the great Ustaads. Finally, to repeat another cliché that is still valid: Man tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj — the sublime bhajan — was sung by Rafi, composed by Naushad and written by Shakeel Badayuni. Our cinema had the answer ages ago. Shakuntala Devi is the other film from which much was expected. It merely skims over the life of a child prodigy’s rise to fame and wealth as the human computer.
This Shakuntala is playful and wilful, whose motivation seems to be not voiceless, like her cowed down mother. In the process, a couple of romantic liaisons are hinted at, as she wines and parties her way to success, till she pursues the man she wants to marry, and father her child. Anu Menon gives us a collage of vignettes, which Vidya Balan walks through with panache. The film is interesting for its rare attempt (for our films) to portray the complexities of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. A dominating mother and a rebellious daughter ought to have made for a more vibrant dramatic conflict. The story had much more to offer, and perhaps the enormity of the saga pushed the director towards a narrative that needlessly goes back and forth in time, a trick that adds not much to the telling. Shakuntala Devi died in 2013, but sadly, not many seem interested in her eventful, achievement packed (adding astrology to math wizardry is questionable) life. Celebrity is not forever.