Biweekly Binge: On the many readings of Pataakha
A fortnightly column on what’s good – old and new - in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you
Vishal Bhardwaj's Pataakha landed up on Amazon Prime last week as silently as it landed in theatres. The weekend it opened in the theatres was also the weekend of high-profile releases such as Mani Ratnam's Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, and Sui Dhaaga starring Anushka Sharma and Varun Dhawan, which took up a large portion of the box office pie. A Vishal Bhardwaj film with two women leads, one of them a debutante (Radhika Madan - one of the best debuts in recent times), and the other only referred to as the-other-Dangal-girl until that point (Sanya Malhotra), didn't create much of a stir. When I finally caught up with the film on Prime, it made me wonder if the timing of the release was an issue with the reception of the film. Or was it Bhardwaj's unevenly crafted narratives in his non-Shakespeare attempts. If one takes a closer look, Pataakha, while playing its cards close to its chest, has a different film running in the background. Something Bhardwaj conceals during large portions of the film, but at times it cranes its neck out of the carefully constructed visuals.
Bhardwaj throws multiple things into the mix here. There is Sunil Grover as Dipper, essentially the classic sutradhar or the impresario who is running the show and he is even called Naradmuni at different times because all he does is cause discontent in the already chaotic household of Shanti Bhushan (Vijay Raaz). The latter's daughters are Chutki (Malhotra) and Badki (Madan), who are at loggerheads, sometimes of their own free will and at other times thanks to Dipper's machinations. There is a beautiful shot of a wall, a window with Dipper inside and Badki quiet but in a spot of bother, sitting outside right below Dipper. It forms an image of the perfect puppet master, waving his strings to make his instruments dance to his tunes. Pataakha's women have shades that are far removed from traditional gender roles or those associated with women leads we see in pop culture. They fight in the mud, they violently lash out at each other, they use filthy language, neither their disposition nor their countenance matters to them.
Pataakha's appeal depends on how much one is willing to read into the film. There is an image of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump hugging that comes into focus behind the image of Chutki and her husband hugging. At one point, the film inexplicably comes to a standstill, the sisters lose their gusto to battle, depression seeps into their lives which is reflected by the lethargy in the narrative. Dipper refers to the sisters as India and Pakistan, and suggests the only way to maintain status quo is to draw a border. But something else is afoot in Bhardwaj's mind. The only 'villain' character in the film is a Patel, drawn as a power hungry, patriarchal pervert. He is even referred to as Tharki Patel. Dipper, at times, moonlights as his lieutenant and they do everything in their power to draw the sisters back into war, as opposed to genteel apathy and disregard for each other's existence born out of the ennui in their lives. It makes one wonder if Bhardwaj has used the Charan Singh Pathik's short story Do Behnein only to paint the allegory of an India under the Modi regime. He doesn't stop there though. When Badki asks her boyfriend how much he loves him, he compares his love to the number of buffaloes and mobile phones in the world. We learn that Chutki wants to study and become a teacher and Badki wants to open a dairy. One is in search of education and another is in search of cows. That's two schemes of the present government used for what is essentially satire. While the sisters' hate crimes stop to an extent, the hate they feel remains intact. Their relative successes are hard for them to fathom and digest. Chutki suffers from fear of cows and Badki cannot stand Chutki speaking in English. A mental and physical toll follows with Chutki losing her eyesight and Badki losing her ability to speak.
If you think this is overreading then you are correct. But Bhardwaj's film begins to work on multiple levels when we give in to such a reading. There are moments of poignancy in the sisters' relationship, we learn that they do have genuine affection for each other. But the film never fails to remind you that there are multiple male players directing and influencing their actions. The only reluctant player is their father who is often at a loss for words and cuts a sympathetic figure, whose name is Shanti (Peace). It's a film that shows patriarchy can birth toxicity even in women's relationships and while doing so, Bhardwaj manages to mirror present-day reality. A timely proclamation of BMKJ - Bharat Mata Ki Jai - does more than hint at all the subtext.