Mohalla Assi Review: Sunny Deol's action-less satire lacks punch
Directed by Chandraprakash Dwivedi, the film is a potent satire held hostage by ancient filmmaking
There’s an uncanny timeliness to the delayed release of Mohalla Assi. Directed by Pinjar-fame Chandraprakash Dwivedi, the production of this film was wrapped up in 2011 but it kept hitting roadblocks: starting with alleged non-payment of dues and concluding with a censor clampdown on the rough language. Meanwhile, in 2015, the film was leaked online and declared a canned attempt — like the many there be.
Cast: Sunny Deol, Sakshi Tanwar
Director: Chandraprakash Dwivedi
Yet, as it arrives in theatres in 2018, weighed down by the long and hard run, its core potential seems doubly undeniable. Set between 1988-1998 and inspired by the writings of Dr Kashi Nath Singh, the film seeks to chart a transformative decade in Indian history — stitching together references to the Janata Dal, the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, Babri Masjid, Mandal Commission and Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms. All of this is, of course, background, embedded in animated conversations at Varanasi’s Pappu Ka Dukan, a street chai-shop where local eggheads come to debate and discourse. It all sounds potent material, the kind of talk-heavy political drama typical of independent theatre, but the film loses spunk every time its lead character turns up to tea.
Dharamnath Pandey (Sunny Deol) is an orthodox Brahmin priest and a Sanskrit instructor who scoffs at all the liberalisation around him. He dislikes foreign tourists, who raid his beloved Assi Ghat seeking moksha and cheap house-rents. He’s also a rude husband and an unkind father: the kind of man who’d scold his son for trying on a checkered shirt. More annoyingly, he drapes his orthodoxy as proudly as his sacred thread and raises hell when chicken bones show up on the street below.
To be honest, the role marks a welcome shift for Deol, who — at least in his last few appearances, including YPD 3 — looks more and more bored playing a soft-spoken brute, that wheezing, brawling human bulldozer who ignores jokes on his earlier movies and raises his finger all too much. Here, he is allowed to move at his own pace, wear a funny tuft on his head, and be gentle and decorous around a hand-pump. Deol’s character is somewhat of an anti-hero, a man of the old world struggling to ease into the new. He is ignorant, conservative, communal — but also pious, doubtful and malleable. This seems to be the film’s mainspring, to broker peace between past and present, to reveal the gaps. Thus, dropped after a long time in delicate territory, Deol struggles to serve up a believable performance: his transitions are jarring and his motivations unconvincing, and he spends too much time heaving his broad chest, as though troubled by back-pain.
Telly goddess Sakshi Tanwar, appearing as Deol’s demure but hard-nosed wife, outshines her co-star at every step. She expresses protest with a muted fury and — in a film full of North Indian men hurtling gaalis in varied accents — gets the Banarasi twang just right. She also flips rotis with a specialised swerve, and steals scenes from her bleak courtyard kitchen.
The extended cast is mostly caricaturish despite the attached bigwigs: Saurabh Shukla, Mukesh Tiwari, Mithilesh Chaturvedi, Akhilendra Mishra and Rajendra Gupta. All of them sit around at Pappu’s shop dissecting national politics, ribbing the frizzled communist for pushing his agenda, while Ravi Kishan sweet-talks French tourists into cheap deals and Faisel Rashid — playing the only memorable character in the film — packs off to America and returns as Barbar Baba, a phony religious guru who shaves more than he trims.
Mohalla Assi is choked with subtext, delivering loud and emphatic commentary on a crucial bygone era. The script has a prophetic, told-you-so air — like an old uncle laughing off present-day headlines. However, in execution, the director adapts a grammar so relentlessly ancient and crude that he ends up defeating the whole purpose. Despite all the swearing and showboating, this film looks and feels consistently dated, as though it were standing in the way of something new.
This film comes a week before Bhaiaji Superhit, another Varanasi-set film that will see Deol return to his element — romancing awkwardly on screen and boxing loonies in the face. Dwivedi was a brave filmmaker to cast him in a different mould. Too bad his film lacked the punch.