Film: Mohalla Assi
Cast: Sunny Deol, Sakshi Tanwar, Saurabh Shukla, Ravi Kishan, Mukesh Tiwari, Rajendra Gupta
Director: Chandraprakash Dwivedi
Rating: * * ½
The release of the drastically muted and cripplingly censored ‘Mohalla Assi’ – a film that was undergoing severe pre-release pains for several years, because of it’s contentious theme and overly generous spewing of cuss words in almost every dialogue – coincides with the raking up of the Ram Janmabhoomi issue at a time when sentiment is most likely to be aroused. Unfortunately for parties hoping to cash in on the issue, this film has neither the power nor the coherence to pan out into an emotive crutch for anyone concerned with the issue. And that’s really a pity because the overriding theme here is very much relevant. The disrupted narrative though has so many fault-lines that it’s difficult for the viewer to make sense of what the film is trying to say. This tiresome rant (or rave) on the unique mohalla of Banaras is not likely to enthuse.
It’s a post-liberalisation set-up. Mohalla Assi (residents of Assi Ghat) is supposedly the holiest place in Kashi and it’s also a place where everyone talks in desi slang. The inhabitants here are a distinctly class-conscious lot – divided on the issue of allowing meat eating foreigners to stay on in their Mohalla even if it is to promote their township and its unique character. The Pandas – Dharamnath (Sunny Deol), a Sanskrit scholar and teacher and his second wife Savitri (Sakshi Tanwar) think nothing of spewing foul abuses while claiming to be caretakers of Lord Shiva. Upadhyayji (Saurabh Shukla) is a panda willing to forgo tradition for the lure of the lucre. Kanni guru (Ravi Kishan) is the local shyster guide who doesn’t think ethics have a place in a market economy. Nakka (Faisal Rashid) is the local barber who transforms into Barber baba after his liaison with Catherine, an American author/tourist who was finding it hard to find PG accommodation and Madeliene is a French tourist who want to become a Sanskrit scholar. Pappu ki dukaan is the melting pot where all these people meet, spew abuses and voice their opinions on religion and politics.
The set-up is interesting enough and with a little more streamlining, could have become a meaningful discourse on the intersections between religion, its practices, politics and how our perceptions get coloured, value systems and traditions get corrupted, by bigotry alluringly aided by a liberal economy. The impracticably fashioned narrative is so wordy and verbose that the visuals become meaningless. You get so distracted trying to make sense of the words being uttered that the visuals practically flash through without registering. This sort of construct would have been better suited for a radio play rather than an audio-visual experience.
While the film has undoubtedly been inspired by a satirical novel Kashi Ka Assi by Kashinath Singh, it in no way lives up to its inspirations’ heightened emotional attachment. The actors do well to look and speak their roles with gritty realism – unfortunately, none of the characters pan out as likeable or easy to empathise with. Dwivedi’s celluloid translation neither tickles nor pricks. It just leaves you confused by it’s savaged incoherence and intemperate voice!