New Delhi: Did you know Pankaj Kapur is a teetotaller in real life? You wouldn't if you saw him teetering drunkenly at the edge of a village well, barking obscenities at it and getting offended that it was answering back.
There are several spoilers ahead. So if you haven't seen Vishal Bhardwaj's Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, do come back to this write-up later once you have.
For those who do not care about spoilers, there are several scenes that teeter on the brink of greatness but they dissolve before your eyes as Bhardwaj cannot decide whether to give in to the absurd, romanticise Maoism, play safe with a bankable lead pair or make a seriously political film.
Enter Pankaj Kapur.
The man who made Jahangir Khan a legend, Kapur easily gives one of his career's brilliantly delightful performances in what can only be termed as absurdist cinema.
Scene 1: Landowner Harry Mandola has a side to him known to all, feared by the people of the village named after his forefathers and occasionally indulged by his educated driver Matru. The slightly cruel and mostly money-minded Mandola sparks terror in the hearts of those around him when sober. But down a few drinks he becomes the amiable Hariya, forgetting his bearing and instigating the villagers to raise a cry of revolt against him. In slurred speech, the ridiculously drunk Kapur then bursts into a war song and leads a protest march to his own mansion to demand the land rights of the peasants. Kapur is unfettered in his madness and the scene gets better when he dives drunkenly into his pool, emerges sober and sets out with a glint of steel in his eyes to meet these unfortunate villagers, shotgun in hand.
Scene 2: The two-seater plane he has taken for a joyride catches fire and like a character straight out of a Gogol or Kakfa novel, Mandola, drunk as ever, reaches around at the back of his seat to get one last drink before he and Matru jump to safety, parachutes strapped to their back. He has a cigar in hand and looks around for a box of matches, notices the flaming tip of the plane and reaches out to light his smoke.
Scene 3: The slightly slimy and deliciously nasty Deviji, the chief minister of Haryana, played by the brilliant Shabana Azmi matches Kapur wit for wit as they flirt in the corn fields. The sensuality of the two ageing characters, united in their lust for power and money, is underplayed by the sheer charm of a recovering drunk and a plotting antagonist.
Scene 4: A quiet, emotional scene between Mandola and his daughter Bijlee on the day of her wedding when the father in Harry has an internal debate with the ambitious industrialist in him on whether to trade his daughter for the greater good (as per his conviction) of the village. He's fooling no one and a disappointed Bijlee reads his thoughts as if they were etched on his forehead.
Scene 5: All his moments facing Gulabo, the pink buffalo, are delightful. In reality, buffaloes aren't much of a threat to anyone, but to Kapur they symbolize the inner demons he has been keeping at bay for years. We are given a hint during a tirade by his daughter on her mother's untimely death. As Kapur fights his alcoholism he also wrestles the devil in him which threatens to spring forth the moment he lets his guard down.