Mere Pyare Prime Minister Review: An uproariously funny & soul-crushingly poignant film of high social relevance
Containing elements of humour, pathos, triumph, and tragedy, the socially relevant Mere Pyare Prime Minister is a film not be missed
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Mere Pyare Prime Minister gets its premise and message spot on. For a film that explores pressing social issues like open defecation, gender bias, sexual assault, and an enormous disparity between the haves and have-nots, it does not go down the road of didacticism. In that regard, it works almost as a relevant yet highly watchable documentary with elements of fiction thrown in to further the narrative. The film is in equal parts moving, depressing, hopeful, funny, and light, but its most important job is to make you introspect and question your own privilege (gender, social, and economic).
Cast: Anjali Patil, Om Kanojiya, Adarsh Bharti, Syna Anand, Rasika Agashe, Niteesh Wadhwa
Director: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra
Set in the place of a million dreams and a million tragedies, a place that Sukhetu Mehta aptly coined Maximum City, the action unfolds in one of Mumbai’s unnamed bastis. And it goes without saying that, in this city, the chasm between the rich and the poor is that much more prominent. In an already over-populated metropolis with myriad problems, slums are overflowing with people trying to eke out a living on the bare minimum. Water is in short supply, but the biggest challenge is to relieve oneself. Since there are no toilets (public or otherwise), the only option is to defecate in the open. Railway tracks and large industrial pipes (that sit atop canals and creeks) are preferred. It is a well-known fact that Indian women (rural and urban) who do not have the access to toilet facilities use the cover of night to heed nature’s call. They do this in groups, so as to protect themselves from various forms of sexual assault and harassment. It is an extremely unfortunate state of affairs, and the Government is nowhere close to solving such a largescale problem. Mehra gets all of his basics correct.
Sargam (Anjali Patil), and all her female counterparts, are plagued by the same issues. But as is common among people with less, banter and humour are powerful tools to get by, not to mention, the support from one another. Sargam is a single mother with a spirited eight-year-old by the name of Kahnu (Kanhaiya). While the former is busy at work embroidering garments for a living, her child dons the many roles of confidante/friend to Mangla, Ringtone, and Nirala (neighbours’ children), part-time drug runner, part-time newspaper vendor, and has recently been employed by a wealthy good Samaritan to distribute affordable contraception to adults. The sample condoms confound the youngster, as he hands them out to unsuspecting adults at traffic signals, and the like.
Between all the chores at home and away, there is precious little time for an education, but not for a moment does the kid’s sassy attitude dim. A scene at the foyer of a swanky high-rise apartment complex comes to mind. The uniformed security guard regards his presence with contempt, and forbids him from entering. It’s a classic case of judging by mere appearances. Without batting an eyelid, and with much confidence, Kahnu gives the man details of the lady he is to meet. The guard makes enquires with the said person over the phone, and reluctantly nods to the boy. Kahnu’s response, and the sense of cool that exudes from the lad’s person, is quite something. “Pooch liya? Ab jaoon?” (“Are you done asking? Can I go now?”). The man is red-faced, but his embarrassment ups a few notches when the kid, as an afterthought, walks up and hands over a condom. “Bade ho. Use karo lo. Gussa kam ho jayega.” Even the parting shot is killer.
On the night of Holi, after all the revelry has died down, Sargam goes in the direction of the railway tracks to relieve herself. She pays no heed to her friends’ warnings of going alone. On her way back, she is raped by a police officer, who, just moments before, had helped her from being molested by a drunken neighbour. The light in her eyes ceases, and she retreats into herself. Kahnu’s attempts at consoling her fail. What dignity can anyone have without a safe place to perform that most natural of bodily functions? Kahnu then begins the uphill battle of making that pipedream (of gifting his mother a toilet) into a reality.
The most outstanding parts of Mere Pyare Prime Minister involve the children – all of whom (from Om Kanojiya to Syna Anand) are brilliant in their roles. Adarsh Bharti, as the endearing and hilarious Ringtone, is the standout of the supporting cast. When the kids have banded together to change the system and demand a toilet in their basti, it is Ringtone who shoots back at the sarcastic barbs of the two municipal officials. These exchanges (no matter how unlikely them seem, in reality), are a riot. Kahnu, Mangla, and Nirala are more toned-down in their approach, for the most part, but it is Ringtone who lets fly when provoked. The officials refer to their home as a jhuggi-jhopri, to which the latter’s response is, “Aye, kisko ‘jhuggi-jhopri’ bol raha hai tu?” (“Hey, who do you think you’re saying ‘slum’ to?”). The kids are further told that the land on which they stay is under litigation, making it impossible for their request to be considered. To change the system, they are asked (as a joke) to write to the Prime Minister. Ringtone comes up with another classic one-liner when he says, “Yeh Mr. System kahan milenge?” When such dialogues are delivered by a precociously cheeky lad of seven or eight with great comic timing/acting promise, it is indeed heartening.
The whole trek to the capital (with only their wits for survival) for an audience with the PM, and the interactions they have at 7, Race Course Road, are rather improbable (especially for a film that prides itself in showing ground realities and discussing socially relevant material). Another criticism I’d level against Mere Pyare Prime Minister is the message of hope. I understand that the entire narrative hinges on it (it is no Salaam Bombay, that’s for sure), but the moments of hope are perhaps too joyous, or, for the want of a more appropriate phrase, too hopeful. A more measured style may have suited it, especially towards the end.
The film represents an earnest attempt at focussing on a terribly unfair situation being witnessed across our country. It tries to ask pointed questions to those in power, and hold them accountable. It sheds a light on the plight of Indian women (those with no privilege to speak of), and their right to basic dignity/respect in their day-to-day existence. It makes you question the deepening disparity between those who have and those who do not. Two examples of the aforementioned sentence can be found within the narrative. The first one has Kahnu sitting on one of those large industrial pipes, making an assessment as to how many toilets would be there in each high-rise building in the distance (while his own over-crowded basti has not one). The second instance is during Kahnu’s letter to the PM. He says, “Sir, apne basti ke gharon mein fridge hai, Tata Sky hai, lekin toilet nahi.” – calling upon the need to put things in perspective.
All things considered, Mehra’s Mere Pyare Prime Minister is a fine effort. And though it tells a simple story, it tells it rather effectively. Endearing, light, uproariously funny and soul-crushingly poignant in the same breath, it is a film that should not be missed. At the end of it all, expecting it to be grittier and less hopeful would be an unfair ask. I was reminded of such titles as I Am Kalam and Kaaka Muttai during the course of my viewing.