FILM REVIEW: ‘Kaagaz’ takes the viewers back to the hinterland and wears its provincial heart on its sleeve

The film is inspired by the life of Lal Bihari Mritak, a resident of Amilo village in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, who was declared dead between 1975 and 1994, as per official documents

FILM REVIEW: ‘Kaagaz’ takes the viewers back to the hinterland and wears its provincial heart on its sleeve
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Namrata Joshi

Kaagaz would not have been an easy film to make. Not for any other reason but for the fact that the life of its protagonist — Bharat Lal (Pankaj Tripathi) — has very little sweep or flourish. Yes, for the subject of the film, the impasse is unique — to have been declared dead in government records — but the struggle to reclaim his life is a long, tedious and gloomy journey than a colourful or exciting adventure. It is about sheer doggedness rather than drama, something that may not translate well on screen.

However, director-actor Satish Kaushik, with Pankaj Tripathi as his actor-in-command, and his team of writers — Imtiyaz Hussain, Ankur Suman, Shashank Khandelwal — tries to make the most of it by injecting little doses emotions and sentiments, humour, satire and, at times, outright farce to the prosaic proceedings.

The film is inspired by the life of Lal Bihari Mritak, a resident of Amilo village in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, who was declared dead between 1975 and 1994, as per official documents and who even launched an organisation to help people like him, who had been declared dead on paper.

FILM REVIEW: ‘Kaagaz’ takes the viewers back to the hinterland and wears its provincial heart on its sleeve

Kaagaz takes the viewers back to the hinterland and wears its provincial heart on its sleeve. Be it the setting — from the fields to the local courts and government offices — the various characters and the actors playing those roles, their lingo, dresses or demeanour — it is, yet again, all about Bollywood going to the boondocks. The film doesn’t fight shy of shedding light on the dilapidation of the world it inhabits; rather it constantly and consciously underscores it. Kaushik opts for a plain, unvarnished and earnest storytelling. Which, at times, also gives the film the old-worldly, static feel of the Films Division documentaries of yore.

The big issue, however, is that much of Lal Bihari’s struggle was to do with paperwork, the constant exchange of letters and applications with the bureaucracy. How to present it on screen other than showing the typewriter and its ribbon and explaining things through a voiceover?

Kaushik plays around with incidents—with an ingenuous kidnapping and a mock funeral procession as protest also thrown in—and the dramatis personae, turns some local politicians into semi-caricatures to serve up humour and others as villains to highlight the drudgery and fear they bring to the lives of the commoners. There is ready, rustic wit on display in the dialogue. In all this, the song and dance and specially the item number feel out of place; they detract than add to the action.

FILM REVIEW: ‘Kaagaz’ takes the viewers back to the hinterland and wears its provincial heart on its sleeve

Tripathi occupies the screen with characteristic ease and charm, playing Bharat Lal with off-the-cuff spontaneity. As always, with him the exchanges feel improvised than rehearsed, especially the ones with his lawyer Sadhu Ram Kewat (Kaushik himself). Most importantly, he appears to belong to the world, right down to the way he holds his own on screen kids or the way he makes and serves rotis to his family.

The one and perhaps only touch of glamour is that the film is presented by Salman Khan Films, with Salman Khan as one of the producers. In 2019, Varun Grover wrote “Kaagaz nahin dikhayenge” in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). Kaagaz is bookended by a poem recited by Salman that also underlines the tyranny of documents. The poem talks about how the battles in the world are reduced to being all about pieces of paper and how it’s a document that, more often than not, makes or breaks the lives of common people. It all boils down to kaagaz (a piece of paper) taking precedence over an individual’s wajood (presence or existence).

It makes you realise that times may have changed since the period that the film is set in, but they haven’t really. Documentation is still the be all and end all.

FILM REVIEW: ‘Kaagaz’ takes the viewers back to the hinterland and wears its provincial heart on its sleeve

Director: Satish Kaushik

Cast: Pankaj Tripathi, Monal Gajjar, Mita Vashisht, Amar Upadhyay, Satish Kaushik

Produced by: Presented by Salman Khan Films with Satish Kaushik Entertainment Production and produced by Salma Khan, Nishant Kaushik and Vikas Malu.

Screenplay: Imtiyaz Hussain

Dialogues: Imtiyaz Hussain, Ankur Suman, Shashank Khandelwal

Cinematography: Arkodeb Mukherjee

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