Vishal Bharadwaj’s latest film Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola (MKBKM) sees him back in is familiar territory, moffusil India, but with a more satirical eye than in his previous outings. Here the characters are straight out of the newspapers—the landlord determined to monetise his land bank, the crafty female politician who sees profitable possibilities and her dumb son, who is her putative but useless heir, corrupt bureaucrats and the like. Reviews have generally been favourable, with some pointing out similarities to that 1983 cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (JBDY), which was a sharp indictment of India as it was and in some ways, still is.
Bharadwaj is a talented filmmaker and knows the ethos and pulse of the dusty hinterland. He has captured the scene well and created some unusual types, such as the schizophrenic landlord, his skimpily clad daughter, his driver who is a law graduate, and of course the pink buffalo. Pankaj Kapoor is superb as is Shabana Azmi as the cunning politician. The lines are punchy too, drawing attention in a non-preachy way to the central message of venality in our glittering nation.
But — and this is a huge but — it pales in comparison to JBDY. Not in terms of production values, since the newer film is far slicker, but in its overall politics. Though it goes further than most recent films, MKBKM fails to really come to grips with that one thing that made JBDY so different, so unique: it is unable or unwilling to really go after the one constituency that is central to the whole crony capitalism equation — the businessman. Indeed, corporate tycoons, CEOs, magnates, businessmen of all types have escaped the attention of our brave new generation of filmmakers. When they want to make a “political” film, they make a film with politicians; that satisfies our notions about corruption and all that is wrong with this country, but the picture remains half-complete and thus, unsatisfying.
Hindi cinema is quick when it comes to incorporating the latest headlines into their films. Within days of the horrible gangrape in Delhi, film producers had declared their intention to make a film on it. After Kargil and 26/11, film directors were quick to commission scripts on those stories. But despite the numerous scams of the past couple of years, scams that have involved big businessmen, top corporate houses, senior executives, Mumbai’s producers have been coy about touching those subjects. Not only that, there are hardly references to the cozy deal making that happens behind closed doors between businessmen and politicians. When is the last time one recalls a tycoon as a villain?
It was not always so. Films in the 1950s and 60s routinely showed businessmen who were pillars of society, were in reality shady gang-land bosses. Guru Dutt may be more remembered for his maudlin and defeatist dramas such as Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool, but he made some fine crime films like Baazi, Aar Paar and CID — all of which had respectable, suit wearing rich men with a nasty underside.
However, it was JBDY, which exposed the nexus between power brokers, contractors, civil servants and even the media to cheat the unsuspecting public. Tarneja, interestingly, also played by Pankaj Kapoor works out a deal with the municipal commissioner D’Mello (Satish Shah) for construction contracts though bridges built by him don’t stay up for too long because of shoddy work. The two beat-up photographers who accidentally stumble upon evidence find that the editor they had trusted is on the side of the corrupt elements. In the end, both end up losers, like everyman. Kundan Shah and his team were simmering with anger, but they chose satire to tell their story.
Anger seems to be in short supply in Mumbai’s studios these day, even though there is rising rage in the country, at least among the middle-classes. The films that do go off the beaten path — Shanghai and Pipli Live were two recent examples — to explore current themes — have been clever and perceptive. MKBKM has fine moments too. But most have tip-toed around even the suggestion that India’s business sector, which is driving the country’s growth story, may be in some ways complicit in the corruption scandals too.
Could this be because big business is now fully involved in the media, be it print, broadcast or films? MKBKM has been produced by Fox Studios, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s company. Could the suits be vetting scripts? On the other hand, one cannot imagine Bharadwaj giving up creative freedom. Nor does it explain why indie filmmakers shy away from such controversial but obvious themes. After all, Prakash Jha did push the envelope with the song “Birla ho ya Tata, Ambani ho ya Bata, sabne apne chakkar mein desh ko hai kata”, even if it all sounded a bit too crude. Are they worried they will be sued by high-profile lawyers?
The brave new filmmakers of today should think about this. Perhaps there is already someone who is thinking of making a film on the telecom or coal scam. Maybe the CEO as a crook theme is the next big thing. There might be a film that finally shows how the system works at that level to cheat the public. While the script writers, directors and producers are pondering over this, they may want to remember that JBDY was produced by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), in other words, by the government. That itself says us a lot.