Cast: Sunny Deol, Sakshi Tanwar, Ravi Kishan, Saurabh Shukla,
Director: Chandraprakash Dwivedi
Rating: 2 Stars (Out of 5)
Television and film director Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s long-delayed Mohalla Assi brings to the big screen Hindi litterateur Kashinath Singh’s Kashi Ka Assi, a no-holds-barred, insightful take on a Varanasi locality seen through the prism of India’s political and economic churn in the 1990s. The majorly flawed, exasperatingly uneven film, which has faced more than its share of censorship trouble, springs to life sporadically in the first half and then loses its way irretrievably in the second.
The tale, which opens in 1988, revolves around an ultra-orthodox priest and Sanskrit teacher Pandit Dharmanath Pandey (Sunny Deol), a man who swears by the Ganga and the Scriptures and is vehemently opposed to foreigners renting rooms in his all-Brahmin neighbourhood. He frequents a tea shop that serves more than just tea. It is a watering hole – and a debating hall – for a bunch of ageing friends with divergent ideologies.
But when this group of men hears of threats from conservative quarters to stop Varanasi’s hoary ‘Holi kavi sammelan‘ on the grounds of obscenity, they quickly close ranks to protect the town’s sanskriti (culture) and parampara (traditions). They do pretty much the same when a police team raids the tea stall with the intention of sealing it. This meeting place is their ‘parliament’. It is a platform for a free exchange of ideas and, therefore, sacrosanct. But things change for the worse when Hindutva foot soldiers march into town.
In Mohalla Assi, cuss words – two words in particular – fly thick and fast. We are told a few times that it’s no big deal in these parts, where expletives are an integral part of the street lingo. The heated debates in the tea shop, led by writer Kashinath Singh (Mithilesh Chaturvedi) himself, impart a certain gravitas to the early portions of the film. “Doctor sahab” to his acquaintances, the man of letters is a bitter critic of the rightwing demand for a Ram mandir in Ayodhya. Ridiculing the plan to carry bricks to the Ram Janmabhoomi site for the construction of a mammoth temple there, he asks: “Has a grand mandir ever been built with bricks?”
This stretch of the two-hour film is enlivened by energetic performances from a cast that includes Ravi Kishan as a street-smart tourist guide who makes a killing from visitors from the west, Rajendra Gupta as a liberal lawyer who makes no bones about his contempt for Hindutva forces, and Mukesh Tiwari as a pro-Hindutva rabble-rouser. They play people and spout lines that the writer drew from the immediate world around him for his 2004 novel.
There is of course an air of realism in the film, but that innate strength is frittered away in the second half, which is wasted on a ‘domestic drama’ built around Sunny Deol’s character, who is left behind by the rapid changes sweeping through Varanasi, and his clear-headed but suffering wife Savitri (Sakshi Tanwar). The duo’s conflict centres on a corner of the house earmarked for the town’s presiding deity, Shiva, which now needs to be cleared out for a French girl who is in town to learn Sanskrit and could ease the couple’s financial problems.
Deol’s is a case of hopeless miscasting: he simply does not fit the bill when he has to deliver heavy-duty Sanskrit lines. But Tanwar is on top of her game as a woman who does not let the societal constraints imposed upon her stop her from speaking her mind. But this part of the film turns unbearably stodgy, a far cry from the sprawling, dynamic first-half build-up to the Mandal-kamandal politics of the tumultuous late 1980s and early 1990s.
Kashinath Singh’s book covers a period of 10 years that saw the implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, and the Babri Masjid demolition – flashpoints that changed Varanasi, and India, forever. “Desh kabaara ho jaaye yeh log nahi badlenge (The nation can go the dogs, these people will never change),” says one character, while a soothsayer predicts that in a decade India will speak more and think less.
Like the book, Mohalla Assi also touches upon rampant commercialization and consumerism as well as the process of globalization of post-liberalisation India, best exemplified in the story by a wily and ambitious barber who in next to no time mutates into a godman with a following across the US, while the respected Sanskrit teacher clings to his past to the detriment of his family of four.
Rooted in caste arrogance and unshakeable conservatism, Dharamnath Pandey languishes in poverty. By the time he realizes that the world has moved on, it is too late for a course correction – his precarious personal state is a metaphor for a nation lured by Hindu revivalism.
Had the immense potential of the literary text that forms the foundation of Mohalla Assi been even half realized, this would have been powerful indictment of the pernicious brand of politics that thrives on communal hatred and socio-religious divisions. While ‘Har har Mahadev‘ is the dominant religious slogan in Varanasi, ‘Jai Shri Ram‘ begins to intrude slowly but steadily, changing the mood in the air and driving the group of ideologically opposed friends who assemble in ‘Pappu’s dukaan‘ every day to discuss political developments into essential, urgent arguments over the future of Varanasi and, by extension, of India.
While the making of the film looks terribly dated, its central discourse is, 20 years on, undeniably more topical than ever as the pluralistic ethos of India comes under increasing strain. By veering away from that thematic line in the second half and settling for a strand that signals a tame acceptance of the centrality of religious beliefs in the lives of the people of Varanasi, Mohalla Assi loses an opportunity to be what it could have been – an important and radical Hindi film.
As things stand, it falls between two stools as much for its confused stance as for a screenplay that is too disjointed to be able to make its blows count. Mohalla Assi isn’t the film that Kashinath Singh’s trenchant novel deserved. Half of the film knows exactly what it is driving at, the other half is all at sea.