Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola: Film Review

Matru film still
Celebrated dramatic filmmaker makes unfunny foray into political satire.

What Vishal Bhardwaj's Indian comedy brings in star power, it lacks in humor.

EMERYVILLE, Calif. -- A greedy businessman bent on turning his village’s croplands into a sprawling development is brought to justice in the comedy Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola. But despite high hopes for a leading filmmaker and his talented, A-list cast, the film is a nearly three-hour slog whose end can’t come soon enough.

Released on a weekend with almost no box office competition, the film nevertheless has sputtered at the box office.

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Indian filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj, best known for popularizing folk rhythms in his soundtracks and for championing rural characters in all their uncouth, foulmouthed glory, has impressed festival audiences at Toronto and elsewhere with arty mainstream films such as his Shakespeare-inspired Maqbool (based on Macbeth) and Omkara (Othello).

Also acclaimed as a writer and music composer, Bhardwaj is capable of drawing out searing performances from his artists and unleashing songs (such as the lurid and catchy “Beedi”) that become Bollywood anthems.

But his success has been inconsistent, marked with missteps such as the confusing Kaminey and 7 Khoon Maaf. By now, his folky soundtracks and lovable, cursing louts are wearing out their welcome.

Matru (Imran Khan) is an educated young firebrand working for Mandola (noted theater artist Pankaj Kapur, a Bhardwaj favorite), a wealthy local business mogul who is conspiring with his state’s chief minister (Shabana Azmi of Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children) to plow up miles of wheat fields and convert the land to a vast complex of factories and shopping malls. To solidify the deal, Mandola has even agreed to marry off his daughter, Bijlee (Anushka Sharma), to the chief minister’s son.

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But Mandola’s plan is being sabotaged by a masked provocateur nicknamed Mao, by his unpredictable daughter, and, even worse, by his own raging alcoholism.

Although working with timely subject matter, Bhardwaj is out of his comfort zone in comedy. Effective neither as a romantic comedy nor political satire, the film suffers from painfully slow timing (and is 45 minutes too long).

Try as they might, Bhardwaj and Kapur cannot find humor (who could?) in the character of a suffering alcoholic whose tribulations drag on for three quarters of the movie. A running gag about Mandola’s delirium tremens-induced hallucinations of a hot-pink buffalo, and another about a troupe of elaborately costumed Zulu dancers, are merely embarrassing.

As a director, Bhardwaj seems to lavish attention on Kapur and Azmi but lets the talented Sharma run wild in her trademark manic style. For his part, Khan seems to be texting it in.

The only moment that brings a smile is Bharadwaj’s jab at the now-obligatory “Smoking Is Injurious to Health” disclaimer shown at the beginning of most Indian films.

Against a stark black background, a litany of warnings appear, along the lines of “Eating Lemons Will Pucker Your Lips” and “Too Much Water Will Leave You Bloated.” And this even more disturbing medical fact: “Popcorn Has 1,000 Calories Per Serving.”

Opened: Jan. 11, 2013
Production company: Fox STAR Studios
Cast: Imran Khan, Anushka Sharma, Pankaj Kapur, Shabana Azmi, Arya Babbar
Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Screenwriters: Vishal Bhardwaj, Abhishek Chaubey
Producer: Vishal Bhardwaj
Director of photography: Kartik Vijay Thyagarajan
Production designers: Subrata Chakraborty, Amit Ray, Punita Grover
Music: Vishal Bhardwaj
Sound designer: P.M. Satheesh
Costume designer: Payal Saluja
Editor: Sreekar Prasad
Unrated, 148 minutes