Directed by Chandraprakash Dwivedi
Cast: Sunny Deol, Sakshi Tanwar, Ravi Kishan and others
Rating: Two stars
At another time, in surer hands, Mohalla Assi might have been an important film, with something valid to say about politics, religion, materialism, spiritualism, fanaticism and the many facets of the riverside town of Benaras, which, in Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s film, stands for the rest of India– trying to fly while not letting go of its roots.
Based on a novel by Kashinath Singh, the film begins with the life of an orthodox Brahmin, Dharamnath Pande (Sunny Deol—brave but miscast) struggling with poverty and irrelevance, when nobody cares about Sanskrit or Hindu rituals.
Mohalla Assi, long in the making and beset with censor problems, then scatters all over the place, capturing the town’s watering hole, Pappu Ki Dukaan, where a garrulous, foul-mouthed bunch of men gather to argue and bicker, and following the antics of local guide Kanni (Ravi Kishan) and a barber-turned-guru (Faisal Rashid), who have no qualms about conning gullible foreigners who come to Benaras for spiritual salvation.
Dwivedi resorts to the lazy and ineffective shortcut of characters rattling off pages of dialogue—telling, instead of showing, what is happening to Benaras and, by extension, to the country. The Ram Janmabhoomi karsevak agitation and Mandal Commission are hastily thrown into the pot, with no real connection to the story, except for one of the idle men in Pappu Ki Dukan, pointing out that the Har Har Mahadev chant of Benaras has suddenly changed to Jai Shri Ram, alluding to the rise of an intolerant Hindutva.
Amidst the turbulence of the 1988-98 decade around him, Pande tries to hold on to the purity of his faith, that decrees that no foreigner can set foot in the Brahmin stronghold of Assi Ghat. Others resent that non-Brahmins are making money by renting rooms to foreigners, while Pande forbids it. His own wife Savitri (Sakshi Tanwar) is tired of poverty and the deprivation her children have to suffer.
The stance of the book is bold, which the film cannot quite be, considering today’s toxic environment, so the profanity-spouting characters that must have been quite colourful in the book, turn into cardboard cut-outs in the film, each representing a particular ideology. The swear words are sprinkled liberally, which makes the viewer flinch, and the character speaking it look fleetingly uncomfortable. The excessive verbiage of the film and its disjointed narrative, ultimately makes all that stridency boring and futile.
Deepa Gahlot is one of India’s seniormost and best known entertainment journalists. A National Awardwinning film critic, Deepa has watched more movies and theatre than most people in the country. An author of several books on film and theatre, she has had an extremely successful run as head of theatre and film at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, during which she helped nurture several original productions. For Xyngr, Deepa Gahlot reviews theatre and cinema.