Yes, Dangal (2016) was a near perfect commercial entertainer riding high on content that tugged at the heartstrings of many. But who would have thought that the boy-cut haired Sanya Malhotra, who played wrestler Babita Kumari and was relegated to the background in most parts of it, would bloom into one of the most incredible roses in the garden? From Pataakhaa and Badhaai Do to Pagglait and Meenakshi Sundareshwar, Sanya has belted out films that smell of heartland India and have brought wide acclaim to not just her own body of work but also redefined contemporary Hindi cinema.
And, Kathal: A Jackfruit Mystery is the latest gem from Sanya’s filmography. The actress completely owns the film, pulls you into its world and leaves you feeling exulted. A large chunk of the credit goes to its writing team - the father-son duo of Ashok Mishra and Yashorwardhan Mishra. And Sanya deftly and effortlessly, brings their words to life.
On the surface, the premise of Kathal is as bizarre as it can get, almost bordering on frivolity. Set against the backdrop of a small town called Moba in Uttar Pradesh, the film is pivoted around the sudden disappearance of two prized Uncle Hong jackfruits from the local MLA, Pateria’s orchard. Soon, the Moba police are tasked with the investigation to find out the jackfruit thief and leading this search is inspector Mahima Basor.
One may question the intention and context of a narrative as off-the-wall as this. And yes, most of the characters are equally idiosyncratic. But it is the meaty and layered brilliance of the substance that makes Kathal so much more than what it looks like. The makers have tried to touch upon extremely relevant subjects like loopholes in the dubious bureaucracy, how those at the top of the hierarchical food chain are the only ones deserving of justice and how the police are always at their beck and call no matter what, and themes related to sexism and casteism, without the slightest trace of it being preachy.
Mahima is a woman belonging to a lower-caste community and her promotion is taken by many with a pinch of salt, including one of her seniors. Her boyfriend, Saurabh, is a constable at the same police station and though the both of them are immensely in love and plan on getting married someday, his father leaves no stone unturned to constantly remind him that a wedding with Mahima will bring shame to their Brahmanical household. Further, the fact that Saurabh reports to Mahima doesn’t sit well with him. So, even when Mahima is tasked with unravelling a bigger case related to abduction of minors, she bargains with her supervisor and says that she will go ahead with it only if Saurabh gets a promotion so that their chances of marrying each other turn slightly fat. These subtexts are seamlessly blend into the narrative and never for once, do they come across as a constricted and ham-fisted attempt to make a strong statement on the current socio-political state of affairs even if they are very much so.
Veteran writer Ashok Mishra has worked with iconic filmmaker Shyam Benegal to create films like Welcome To Sajjanpur (2008) and Well Done Abba (2009). The honesty and simplicity of these stories spill over to Kathal as well. Here too, humour is used as a strong, and thankfully not laboured, device to convey a social message. Needless to say, there aren’t any laugh out loud moments but the underlying comical quotient will bring you a smile and make you chuckle every now and then. And seasoned comic actors like Rajpal Yadav, Vijay Raaz and Gurpal Singh with their impeccable timing bring their own charm to the table and add a fine cherry (or jackfruit, in this case) atop the delicious cake.
Rajpal plays Anuj, a journalist with Moba News. He’s unpredictable, loud and will go to any extent to break an exclusive news story. Vijay plays Pateria, a rich and eccentric politician, who is angry and heartbroken after his jackfruits go missing. He hates his son-in-law and lashes out and takes jibes at him every time he misbehaves with and tries to dominate his daughter. Gurpal, on the other hand, is Mahima’s boss. A warm and lovable senior cop, he holds a soft corner for Mahima and wants her to succeed. These powerhouses along with Brijendra Kala, who portrays a forensic officer, take the already dazzling screenplay a notch higher. Their quirkiness renders flavours of sweetness, savouriness and spice to this delicious pickle jar of Kathal.
What also stands out is its music composed by Ram Sampath. The husband-wife duo of Ram and Sona Mohapatra, once again, belt out some beautiful numbers like Nikar Chalo Re and Lalla Lalli, which form the heart and soul of the film. At 1 hour 55 minutes, Kathal makes for an extremely crisp narrative. Yashowardhan wastes no time and dives straight into the narrative setting its tone right since the first frame where Mahima and her team are seen chasing a perpetrator down the narrow alleyways of Moba in the most naïve and comical way. Since the beginning, it is cemented that Kathal is an oddball film with some oddball characters and situations. And despite that, you believe in its milieu and world. The essence and aroma of small-town India has been beautifully and flawlessly captured by the makers and the cinematographer, Harshvir Oberai. The use of bold and bright colours like fuchsia pink and indigo blue in spurts is deliberate and bring to the sepia tinted Moba some vibrance, both literally and metaphorically.
The cops at the Moba police station aren’t your regular Bollywood cops we’ve been seeing on the big screen. They’re not stylish, they’re not fierce and they cannot chase and bring down a gang of rowdies single-handedly. And to be honest, it’s quite refreshing! The chase sequence wherein Mahima and her team break into an old and debilitated haveli with a chic pink door and fight a group of kidnappers by throwing vegetables at them is charmingly cacophonous. Yet another sub-plot that will win your heart over is the love story between Mahima and Saurabh. It’s so sweet, real, raw and rooted and in all probability, will have you root for them!
Sanya’s portrayal of Mahima is rather impressive. Underneath the cop uniform lives a regular girl-next-door, who is as flawed as likeable. Defying the stereotypes attached to male and female onscreen cops who are characterised as unyielding, strong and resolute, Mahima is soft-spoken, fragile and vulnerable. But she isn’t afraid to go against the system and fight for what’s right. In some scenes, we see her heart going out to those in the lower strata of the society ostracised by the system. She plays the part to a T and with her choices over the years, has proved that not all strong and righteous women need to be loud, foul-mouthed and fearless.
Anantvijay Joshi essays Saurabh and provides an able support to Sanya’s Mahima and hits the ball out of the park with his feature film debut. Almost throughout the film, Saurabh is caught in a dilemma – to prove himself at work and worthy of Mahima and winning her approval with his sincerity and diligence. You can’t the miss the twinkle in his eyes. His scenes with Sanya are delightful and leave you with a smile. Neha Saraf, who plays Kunti, also grabs your attention.
Kathal marks the coming together of team Pagglait – Ektaa R Kapoor and two-time Academy Award winner Guneet Monga. Much like Pagglait, Kathal is sweet and simple and most importantly, leaves you feeling happy. At a time when crime dramas, cop thrillers and mysteries are very much in vogue, Kathal breaks the monotony and comes as a gush of fresh air. It is heart-warming, cheering and uplifting. As for Sanya, she once again manages to create a fuzzy space in your heart and mind.