Now, I should really be talking about Patiala House for this, I know, because it is another movie in which Anushka inspires an athlete (art imitates Life!). But I think Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola has more of the tone of realism and sort of sweet sadness revolving around loss and the past that I expect from Sultan. Plus, I kind of suspect Patiala House might be so good, it deserves it’s own post, not just a combined with Sultan post.
The thing I like about Anushka in this is that she is so unapologetically herself. Her character is introduced with a soaking wet white shirt, having just jumped into the village pond to rescue a cricket ball. And when Imraan, the hero, can’t help noticing her wet shirt, she doesn’t get embarrassed or ashamed, she just smiles and goes with it.
From this intro, I thought her character was going to be the wild and sexy rich girl, and that’s it. Just around to be the object of desire ping-ponged between her father (Pankuj Kapoor) and Imraan. But it’s more than that, yes she doesn’t mind being seen in a clinging shirt, but that’s not all she is. In fact, the point is that she is so much more than that, she doesn’t even have time to worry about Imraan seeing her in a white shirt.
That’s the big interesting thing in this movie, yes she is in love with Imraan and therefore wants him to succeed. But she has her own concerns and worries based on her father, that are completely separate from anything she has going on with Imraan. And in fact, they end up at cross-purposes. Which doesn’t make her stop loving him or stop wanting to be with him, but it also doesn’t mean that she gives up on her own plans. Which is what I want from “Aarfa” in Sultan, a character who has her own goals and doesn’t let her love for the hero stand in her way.
What I also want, is for this very confidence and goals to be what inspires the hero, Salman in Sultan, just like, I think, that’s what “inspires” Imraan about her in this film. She is the rich girl and he is the poor boy. He champions the villagers and fights oppression and all of that. But when it comes down to it, he is a coward. He loves her, she knows he loves her, she knows she loves him, she knows that has been true since they were children and he was sent to take her home from school everyday. But, despite all his revolutionary talk and strong ideals, he still can’t bring himself to marry someone so far above him.
Anushka, on the other hand, is completely fearless. Once she cares about something, she will be open and go for it with no concern as to what might happen later, or what the broader ramifications are. Like jumping into a pond to rescue a cricket ball without thinking about how it will make her shirt cling to her body, and who might see her.
It’s a Vishal Bhardwaj film, so of course it is brilliant, but what I really love about it is how he very slowly reveals the Anushka-Imraan love affair. It starts out looking like an after thought, but by the end it is the element that solves all the problems, the axis around which everything revolves. Which means I have to be all SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER to talk about it in detail. So, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.
Matru ki Biljli ka Mandola has a great hook to it, that Pankuj Kapoor, the greedy landlord, turns into a generous socialist reformer when he drinks. So Imraan, on behalf of the villagers who are about to lose their land through a crooked deal that Pankuj has cut with corrupt politician Shabana Azmi, keeps trying to get Pankuj drunk and willing to sign something promising to let them keep their land. What this really means is we get to see brilliant actor Pankuj Kapoor play drunk and then sober and then drunk for 3 hours. It’s great.
So, where does Anushka fit into this? At first, no where. She hangs around and teases Imraan, who she has known since childhood. She observes his plans and occasionally mentions that she doesn’t want him to do this because she wants her father to stop drinking. There is a love song thrown somewhere into the middle, which is really cute, where you see her following Imraan around, clearly in love with him, even though she is officially engaged to Shabana’s spoiled son as part of this whole land deal. Oh, and she also interacts with Pankuj, who clearly adores her.
But then there are three scenes where all of a sudden Anushka turns into the power that is driving this whole thing. The first one is super early, and doesn’t really land until later on. The second one is the most powerful and important. At her engagement party, she is having a wonderful time, super happy to be dancing and singing, and teasing and flirting with Imraan a little under the eyes of her dopey fiance, and extra happy because her father is taking time from business to join the party and be fun. But then, towards the end, she starts to realize that her father isn’t just cutting loose, he is drunk again. And she chases after him and begs him not to drink. He denies it, and she tells him she knows he is drunk. Pankuj is playing this scene funny, like a humorous drunk desperately trying to hide his drunk. But Anushka is playing it serious, like the child of an alcoholic who’s heart is breaking seeing him backslide again.
It’s brilliant, because suddenly the audience wakes up to what we have been doing as well. We were sucked into the comedy and lightness of it, and we forgot that essentially we are cheering along the guy who is trying to get an addict to relapse. All along we have been seeing Imraan’s side of this, being the clever guy exploiting a weakness for the sake of the powerless. But now we see Anushka’s side, and she doesn’t care about the whole big picture, she just wants her father back. And she’s right too, maybe even more in the right that Imraan who is willing to sacrifice his health and happiness for what the villagers need from him.
That’s where the other two scenes come up. The first one is maybe right after she is introduced, he has taken her home and, I think, given her a jacket to cover her shirt. And when he drops her off and goes to leave, she has a brief exchange with Imraan, where she teases him a little about how he is always around, always sent after her to pick her up, and why doesn’t he admit that he cares about her? Imraan holds firm that it is just his job, he just does what her father orders, and she turns on a dime and starts talking about her engagement and her fiance.
She’s showing his cowardice. She is ready to throw away everything if he will just say the word. And when he doesn’t, she has no choice but to keep pushing it, to put her engagement to someone else in his face, to try to get him to do something about the situation before it is too late for either of them.
But the added layer comes later, after everything Imraan has tried has failed and the villagers are about to lose their land. Again, she confesses her love and challenges him to admit his. And he doesn’t. Without saying it explicitly, there is an undercurrent in their conversation here that this is what can solve all their problems. If he admits his love for her, and uses her love for him, then they could use that as a lever to work on her father and save the village. But he just won’t do it.
(See what I mean about how obvious it is that they love each other, whether he admits it or not?)
It’s also in this conversation that it comes up that her father paid for his schooling, sent him all the way to the city to get a law degree, but he insisted on coming back to the village afterwards and working as her father’s driver, rejecting any possibility of jumping above his servant class origins. Is it because he was homesick and believed that he belonged in the village? Is it reverse classism? Or is it because he was so determined to make himself ineligible to Anushka, until he could earn her on his own merit, not just through the education her father paid for?
Which how we land at the ending. Anushka and he have finally admitted their love, but she is still set to be married to someone else and Imraan can’t see how to stop the wedding at this point, or the land deal which will be signed as soon as the ceremony is completed. But the solution was staring them in the face all along. Anushka loves her father and he loves her, and all he has to do is see how miserable this wedding and this land deal are making her, and he will relent. It doesn’t feel like a tacked on happy ending, it feels like something so obvious we should have seen it much sooner. I mean, it’s right there in the title! Bijlee (Anushka) is Matru’s (Imraan) and Mandola (Pankuj) is Bijlee’s. All of these attempts at trickery and plotting were just an attempt to work around the central power, Anushka. It’s not that she is the object ping-ponging between them, as it looked in the beginning, it is that she is the all powerful force that will bring them together.
Anyway, that’s what I want for Sultan, that her character will be the strong one who’s goals matter the most, and everything Salman does is ultimately just to serve her.