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Mohalla Assi Is Provocative Pungent & Relevant

Subhash K . Jha

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Mohalla Assi

Starring Sunny Deol, Sakshi Tanwar, Ravi Kissan,  Sourabh Shukla

Directed by Chandraprakash Dwivedi

Rating: *** ½(3 and a half stars)

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 life-savers . Everything including ganga-jal 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  polarized 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 BabriMasjid.

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  freespeak 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 Ayodha 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  Pandeyand 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’s 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’d better-half than she did asAamir 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 swiveling spin to this saga of a downward spiraling social structure.

Ravi Kissan  is fabulous as a slimy tourist guide who knows which butons to press  to get the right currency  out of the dharmic  vending machine.And Faisal Rashid as a barbar 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  joly 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 characterization. But eventually it proves as portentous and pungent as  the  city that its  brilliant cameraman(Vijay Arora)  captures in rolling waves of  gossiping mobocracy.

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