March 15, 2019
Ali Fazal, Shraddha Srinath, Reecha Sinha, Ashutosh Rana, Rajeev Gupta, Deepraj Rana, Sikander Kher, Sanjay Mishra
Love across social barriers and parental opposition is a theme as old as the hills in Bollywood. Instead of merely revisiting it though, as generations before him have done, writer-director Tigmanshu Dhulia chooses to use it as a hook to pay tribute to his beloved Bollywood and to Allahabad. It is a challenging task since, sometimes, there is only a fine line between recycling and an ode. In his hands though, for the most part that line is thick, firmly drawn and distinctive, with immensely entertaining results.
Dhulia (Haasil, the Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster series, Paan Singh Tomar, Raag Desh) and his co-writer Kamal Pandey place Milan Talkies’ heroine in a conservative Brahmin clan in the pilgrim city. Her fiance is from an educated family, so Maithili a.k.a. Janak Kumari (Shraddha Srinath) is required to pass her college exams before the marriage can take place. Towards this end, her uncle (Rajeev Gupta) hires the resourceful, morally ambiguous Aniruddh Sharma a.k.a. Annu (Ali Fazal) to help her cheat her way to success.
When he is not illegally sourcing university exam papers for the student populace, Annu is preparing to be a Bollywood director by making a film with his limited resources and local talent. The two youngsters meet, sparks fly, and what follows is love, rebellion and mayhem.
The film’s title goes beyond being just a reference to a theatre the couple frequent for their meetings away from prying eyes. Every word, line and shot in Milan Talkies is a bow to classic Hindi cinema, its everlasting beauty and even its clichés. Mughal-e-Azam gets pride of place in the narrative, in a goosebump-inducing scene that could draw a tear from the eye of a committed cineaste. Elsewhere, Sanjay Mishra’s character stands framed by a window with a poster of Pakeezah behind him, as he leans down on the sill and looks in on Maithili who is seated languidly in the adjoining room.
DoP Hari Vedantam’s work shows a passion for Bollywood that parallels Dhulia’s obvious love for it. The Holi song once mandatory in Hindi films, the chase across rail tracks, the escape on a train – they all find a spot here, without trivialising this film industry and, for the most part, without making light of the disturbing social scenario on which Milan Talkies trains its spotlight.
Contemporary Hindi filmmakers seem by turns indifferent to caste, ignorant of it or afraid of open discussions about it, as evidenced most recently by Dhadak, the tepid Hindi remake of the Marathi blockbuster Sairat. Dhulia, however, shows no fear in highlighting the self-defeating egotistical nature of brahminical patriarchy. Here though, his apparent keenness to pay obeisance to Hindi cinema gets the better of him briefly as the plot of Milan Talkies suddenly and uncharacteristically echoes the romanticisation of benevolent patriarchy so famously done by Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) in 1995.
(Spoiler alert) The difference between the two films lies in the fact that “Ja Simran, ja jee le apni zindagi” (Go live your life, Simran) was the culmination of a thread running right through the deeply regressive though beautifully packaged DDLJ, which was from start to finish the story of a man determined not to marry the woman he loves without her father’s permission, whereas Milan Talkies is until that point and even after it an all-out snub to such nonsensical traditionalism. The scene in which Annu unexpectedly becomes intent on Maithili’s “gharwaalon ki marzi" (her family’s consent) is a complete break for his character and for the film itself which had, until then, given her agency in the most trying circumstances. (Spoiler alert ends)
The return to no-holds-barred defiance right after that scene hopefully means that that moment of inconsistency in the script was more a misstep on the part of the writers rather than a sign of lack of commitment to non-conformism. Either way, it does manage to subtract from the resonance of the song that follows shortly, written by the brilliant Amitabh Bhattacharya: “Dhat teri teri zamaana / humko tthenga fikar / apna bheja hai tamancha / dil hai pressure cooker.” (In short: To hell with you, society / we care a fig about you.)
Still, the energy, insightfulness and sense of humour in everything that came before it is so impactful that three-quarters of the battle has already been won by then. (There is a needless comment on mardaangi in another part of the film, which again is incongruous in the face of its overall gender politics.)
Dhulia and Pandey manage to bring Allahabad alive in Milan Talkies with affection, a funny bone and yet no ambiguity about its failings. The music by Rana Mazumder and Akriti Kakar is brimming with infectious verve, that is perfectly balanced out with the challenges in Maithili's situation in particular. This is epitomised by the tension Dhulia manages to whip up around her in a world where even the simple act of watching a film could be rife with danger for a young woman, despite which there are admirable individuals who manage to break out.
Holding this enterprise together along with the director are his top-notch cast. Each one is in spiffing form but a special mention must be made of Dhulia himself whose ease with comedy as he plays Annu’s father in Milan Talkies is a reminder of how undervalued he is as an actor.
Ali Fazal is by now an old hand, equally undervalued by Bollywood despite his engaging personality and acting capabilities.
Debutant Shraddha Srinath who plays Maithili is a find. Her good looks are a bonus, but what truly makes Maithili work is the manner in which she slips into the character’s tricky mix of combustibility and sweetness without allowing the effort to show.
Maithili is one of Goddess Sita’s names. Mythology tested this woman unjustly and in ways that are beyond the endurance of any normal human being. In Dhulia’s Allahabad in the 2010s, she is still being forced to walk through fire simply for the right to live a normal life and be happy. Milan Talkies is lots of fun, but there is so much more to it than meets the eye.
Rating (out of five stars): **3/4
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost: