The sparkle of Vishal Bharadwaj’s latest oddball comedy Pataakha lies in the fact that in spite of riding on a wafer thin plot about two loud squabbling sisters who themselves do not know what do they fight for, the film keeps one fairly entertained and hooked at large, generating frequent chuckles and raising pertinent thoughts on futility of war at the same time. The quirky, dark and situational comedy plays out well primarily because of the authentic milieu it is able to create powered by terrific writing, great performances by the entire ensemble, in sync background score, and great attention to detail in building up the rustic charm.
Vishal Bharadwaj is a master storyteller even when there is hardly any real story, and his razor sharp writing works through an interesting screenplay laden with witty dialogs that smartly plays out the Indo Pak warring analogy for no rhyme or reason (through the quarelling sisters), how they are instigated by external (Dipper like) driving forces to create such situations, how the rest of the world (villagers) are mere spectators letting this happen, how the local superpower (Patel) only pretends to help but is only motivated by its own interests, and how only the good intentioned residents of warring nations (Bapu and the two husbands) bear the brunt and the helplessness of the situation. And the brilliance lies in the fact that in spite of a very absurdist setting and loud characters, the film in itself isn’t loud or on your face, does not come across as brazen slapstick humor, and delivers the deeply interleaved peace metaphor with a rather charming and subtle finesse.
If the symbolism of writing takes the cake, the performances are its perfect condiments. Vijay Raaz is pitch perfect as the helpless father, and comes up with the most nuanced act of the film in an underwritten role. It is hard to decide whether I liked him the most in the film or Sunil Grover aka Dipper who has a diametrically opposite character and is a riot through and through. You know something interesting is going to happen the moment he is on screen, he keeps surprising everytime and is a scene stealer all the way. The flower sisters, Radhika Madan (Champa Kumari, Mother Diary, and winner of the golden cow award) and Sanya Malhotra (Genda Kumari & ‘meri gold’ darling) are both in good form, and don’t let the energy or the high fizzle out in spite of their rough edges that show occasionally in maintaining the consistency of the dialect or expressions. My favorite of the two was Sanya, who displays a better range and is more fluid in her expressions. Radhika has some work to do in her dialog delivery. The rest of the ensemble stays on point for the scope they have.
What falters from the perfection point though is how the film is edited throughout. The initial half hour of the film takes a lot of time to settle down, and for the sisters and their chemistry to really start appealing to us. At this stage, disparate scenes feel very loosely stitched and script progression remains rather jerky and superficial. At the same time, the film does feel frequently stretched out and repetitive in its recurring plot points, given that there isn’t any real story at play here. The film should have benefited immensely had it been crisper at least by a good twenty minutes. There are pacing issues as well, as there is a predictability issue throughout. We know exactly where the film is heading at every point, including the post interval hysterical drama and how lamely it eventually ends. Had the performances been any weaker, or had the symbolic war analogy not played out as smartly, the film would have lost some serious steam and would have fizzled out like a old firecracker gone stale.
When the best of Vishal Bharadwaj films are ranked at the end of his career, Pataakha will possibly land up somewhere in the middle of the stack. It definitely isn’t as memorable an outing as the brilliant Shakespeare trilogy or the intriguing film adaptations of the Ruskin Bond stories, but Bharadwaj definitely recovers lost ground from Maatru ki Bijli ka Mandola or Rangoon. In spite of its stated issues and inconsistencies, there is enough to like in Pataakha. It doesn’t explode to be the brightest of them all, but it is illuminating enough through its sizzling characters, socio-political layers, and sunshine moments sparkling through everyday props like a glass of milk, a bunch of cows, a ladies finger, a pack of beedis or a tossing stone. In spite of its tone of a typical black comedy, it even moves you in its hidden tenderness and in its nostalgic throwback moments of your own childhood gone by. Chances are that you will enjoy this firecracker a lot more if you experience it along with your sibling, like I did. Soak yourself in.