Returning to filmmaking after almost five years, Satish Kaushik has made a film quite unlike the ones he has made before. Kaagaz can easily be called his best work till date but he is still playing catch-up in a genre that has long left behind the days of melodramatic background score.
Kaagaz is the real life story of man extraordinaire, Lal Bihari Mritak, played here as Bharat Lal Mritak by the ever flawless Pankaj Tripathi. Bharat Lal is a kind hearted, loveable band player from a small village in Uttar Pradesh, who believed in slow living before millennials made it fashionable. Content with his tiny shop, a sweet home with a loving wife and a small son, he has zero aspirations of changing it for anything. The opening scene where Bharat captures a mouse in his shop and has a chat with it before setting it free, does a good job of establishing him as a man of pure intent. Pankaj, within just a couple of minutes, melts his way into your heart. Sadly, this is also where the film’s heartwarming storytelling peaks.
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When Bharat’s wife, who is slightly more hopeful of a better life, asks him to expand his business with a bank loan, he realises he has a peculiar problem. He is dead, on paper. Unknown to him, his conniving aunt and her sons got him declared dead, usurping the property that was legally his. Thus began Bharat’s decade-long, gruelling fight against a corrupt system, bureaucracy, his own family and their greed. However, these larger foes crop up much later in the film, initially his biggest enemies are the village kids and idle men who tease him and call him a ‘ghost’.
The film has many foes, albeit of its own making. Satish’s direction and more than a few cliched choices push the film to its premature death. All the goodwill that was raked in the first few minutes is wasted with an item song that has sleazy men and zoom ins on Sadeepa Dhar’s waist. The evil chachi gets her own Komolika-esque sound effects, and a needless commentary by Satish runs through every scene, explaining a fairly simple plot so much that it seems insulting to the audiences’ intellect. Morose music plays at cue during emotional scenes and a buffalo grunts during a marginally amusing moment.
And despite all this, the film is still watchable solely due to the performance of Pankaj Tripathi. It is still a surprise to watch him slip into any milieu, any character with buttery ease. From a sassy gun-slinging gang leader in Ludo to the sweetest father in Gunjan Saxena, Pankaj has proven time and again that there is really nothing that he cannot do. As the small town man with a heart of gold, Bharat Lal was never a big challenge for an actor of his capabilities. Pankaj plays him with kindness, mania, rage and hurt, all in equal measure.
While Pankaj Tripathi may be a marvel among actors, it is those around him that disappoint. From the wife to the chachi to the cousins, politicians, journalists or friends, no one is given a role worth biting into. It also comes as a relief because none of the supporting actors may have been able to carry the weight either. Their jokes do not land, the more emotional scenes do not impress and the wife’s UP accent keeps playing hide and seek.
Kaagaz is clearly behind the times in a genre that has seen far better examples as many as 10 years ago. The closest relative I could think for it must be Salman Khan’s socially awakened films such as Bajrangi Bhaijaan or Sultan. Their heart may be in the right place but the juvenile and cliched direction choices mar their chances of greatness.
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