Friday, October 19, 2018


Release date:
September 28, 2018
Vishal Bhardwaj

Radhika Madan, Sanya Malhotra, Vijay Raaz, Sunil Grover, Namit Das, Abhishek Duhan, Saanand Verma

Trust Vishal Bhardwaj to get to the root of India-Pakistan enmity plus crack Bollywood’s star system, both with one stone. His Pataakha (Firecracker) – coming a year after the Kangna Ranaut-Saif Ali Khan-Shahid Kapoor-starrer Rangoon – is a triumph of good acting without a single major star on its roster. Established, respected artistes: yes, in the supporting cast. Newcomers: yes, one of the leading ladies is a big-screen debutant while for the other, this is her second film, the first having been Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal. Big stars: nyet.

Bhardwaj’s new film is also one of the most hilarious, vivid, electric portrayals of sibling rivalry ever seen on the Hindi film screen.

Pataakha is set in rural Rajasthan where Badki and Chhutki – “children of one mother yet thirsting for each other’s blood” – are constantly at each other’s throats. No particular reason can be pinpointed for this extreme animosity. It just is because they just are.

The two are so abusive and violent towards each other, that it is a wonder they did not finish each other off at birth.

Their widowered father is devoted to them but knows not what to do about their visceral hatred. Bapu (which is what he is called even in the credits – can’t help but grin at the Mahatmafication) earns a modest income from stone quarrying, but is constantly stretched by bribe-seeking government officials. As if that is not stressful enough for the old man, his daughters refuse to be constrained by custom or by his commands.

Based on Rajasthani writer Charan Singh Pathik’s short story, Do Behnein (Two Sisters), Pataakha is not merely a tale of siblings. Just as Hamlet in Kashmir was not about an internecine in-family war, but about Kashmir itself, here in Rajasthan, Badki and Chhutki become a metaphor for two warring neighbours who emerged from the same womb and seem incapable of getting along yet equally incapable of surviving alone. Sound familiar to denizens of the subcontinent?

The film operates at multiple levels. Even without its delicious political impertinence, Pataakha is a hoot. The battles between Badki and Chhutki have a maniacal, frenzied energy that is as heart-stopping as a series of high-adrenaline car chases. The unrelenting slurs the girls throw at each other are never at low volume, and in fact, they are so godawfully loud that if the staid nuns in my mother’s convent school who told her “girls should be seen and not heard” were to meet Badki and Chhutki, they are likely to go into an eternal faint. Except for one particular fight they have in a new home that made me uncomfortable with its decibels and wish for just a few moments of silence, the rest are ridiculously funny for the girls’ combustibility and vocabulary.  

TV’s Radhika Madan plays Badki. Sanya Malhotra, who was the younger Phogat sister in Dangal, is cast as Chhutki. Both personify the firecracker/s of the title. On the face of it, these are easy roles – the two young artistes could have leant entirely on their screaming as crutches. Instead, they ensure that their performances are not reductive nor entirely externalised. The outer trappings are the fun and lively part, but what makes this film an absolute killer is their inner journey, and both of them nail that part.   

Vijay Raaz has often been wonderful in his career, though never more so than when he played the tentwallah P.K. Dubey in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) and the diamond thief in the Bollywood film Delhi Belly (2011). He has just as often been repetitive though. Not here. Bapu is a man of grays, swinging between confused liberalism towards his daughters and despotic behaviour. Through all this, but most especially when he resigns himself to his fate, Raaz makes him a loveable, likeable fellow.

The motley crew surrounding the sisters includes curious bystanders, innocent victims, interlocutors, intermediaries, peaceniks and troublemakers. The pick of the lot is the Narad Muni of the story, a fellow nicknamed Dipper played by Sunil Grover who also voices the wry, hysterical narration.

Dipper is part of the problem and also the solution. He gets off on getting the sisters to head for each other’s throats, yet once he puts a matchstick to the tinderbox that is their relationship, he also invests considerable effort in soothing their flared tempers. Grover is clearly having a blast with the role and his enthusiasm is infectious.

The dusty, grimy women look like they have not bathed in the entire first half (although at a literal level we know they do because Chhutki steals Badki’s clothes while she is in the bathroom one day). Even in the second half, when they are scrubbed out somewhat, they never come even close to being the polished, waxed, tweezed, plucked, made up, dolled up, gym toned, designer clothed, assembly-line heroines usually featured in contemporary Bollywood. Their faces mirror the dust-laden appearance of a film in which both sparring parties are ever prepared to get down and dirty with each other on the spur of the moment.

Their enmity seems to have begun before the beginning of time – Pataakha does not care to clarify the origin. This could cause some confusion if you choose to dwell on it, but for me it was a source of fascination for where this narrative could possibly be headed. Once the allegorical nature of the story is gradually unveiled though, it is clear why Bhardwaj did not pinpoint a reason. There is none. Like south Asia’s (arguably) most enduring political rivalry, this one too is unreasoned, unreasonable, and such a matter of habit that at some point it has become intrinsic to the survival of those involved.

Of course that realisation raises this question: is it Vishal Bhardwaj’s contention that peaceful coexistence is impossible, even undesirable, for some? Pataakha leaves it to the audience to figure that one out, even as it sucks us into the whirlpool of its manic imagination.

This is not the first time that Bhardwaj has allowed his mind to run wild in the Indian countryside, unrestrained by form, formulae or any manner of convention, his music as rousing as the tale he tells. He tried something similar in Haryana back in 2013 with Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, and fell flat on his face. It is a good thing he decided to lift himself up, brush himself off and return with Pataakha. Never before has a film been more appropriately named. What cracking good cinema this is.

Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
136 minutes 11 seconds 

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