There is a lot to be said about Varanasi, the holy city at the riverbank of the Ganga where culture and religion are the twin lifesavers. Everything including Gangaajal is for sale in Varanasi.
Based on Hindi litterateur Kashi Nath Singh`s “Kashi Ka Assi”, a scathing indictment of merchandised religiosity in Varanasi, Dwivedi`s freewheeling adaptation doesn`t shy away from letting the narrative hang loose to accommodate characters from different strata and owing allegiance to polarised political interests which seem to have a meeting point in the dhaba, an adda of ideas where political opinions are fired fearlessly.
Some of the thoughts expressed on the communal conundrum of this great nation of ours are so steeped in relevance and immediacy that we have to remind ourselves that the film is set during the years just before the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
So it isn`t surprising really, that one elderly wise man asks, “How can the Ram temple in Ayodhya be built brick by brick? Have you ever heard of a temple built of bricks?”
This atmosphere of free speech allows renowned actors to come together for a pow-wow that is layered in sarcasm. At one point, Sunny Deol playing an impoverished semi-redundant Brahmin priest, tells his screen wife Sakshi Tanwar that he must leave for Ayodhya to support the construction of the Ram temple.
“Why do you need to go to Ayodhya to encounter Ram? Just stay here and chant His name,” the wife snorts from her meal-time thali.
While the first half of the film picks out characters with all their quirks of radicalism and scatters them everywhere, it is the second half that comes to grips with the crux of the theme.
When all is said and done, “Mohalla Assi” is not a film about the politic of rhetorics. It is an intimate portrait of a social fabric falling into a cultural abyss. It is the story of a Hindu priest Pandey (Deol) perched on the precipice of penury. As Pandey and his wife stare at a life of hopelessness for their children (they have to go to a neighbour`s home to watch television) all around them, their neighbours bloom and blossom by selling their souls and renting their rooms to tourists.
Dwivedi`s narration steers us into Pandey`s fear of losing his relevance to a society that has left Sanskrit far behind and is now chasing the English language. Deol and Tanwar are in fine form as the priest and his supportive yet discontented wife. Their scenes together are brimming with unstated emotions. Tanwar seems more comfortable as Deol`s better half than she did as Aamir Khan`s wife in “Dangal”.
In the way Deol is coerced into compromising his cultural and religious purity, I was reminded of his father Dharmendra in Hrishikesh Mukherjee`s “Satyakam”. This is easily Deol`s most emotionally unalloyed performance. There are other actors contributing pitch-perfect performances that give a swivelling spin to this saga of a downward spiralling social structure.
Ravi is fabulous as a slimy tourist guide who knows which buttons to press to get the right currency out of the dharmic vending machine. And Faisal Rashid as a barber-turned-baba is a telling comment on the cancerous spread of consumerism.
But my favourite sequences are between Sakshi Tanwar and Seema Azmi, the latter playing a socially inferior neighbour who comes into affluence after her husband brings home a firangi tourist. The two ladies nudge the wackiness of Varanasi`s cultural schizophrenia and the rampancy of adulterous sex in the holy city, into a state of awakened bitchiness.
They could be allies in a beauty parlour if they were parlour-worthy.
“Mohalla Assi” may seem a bit scattered in its characterisation. But eventually, it proves as portentous and pungent as the city that its brilliant cameraman (Vijay Arora) captures in rolling waves of gossiping mobocracy.