Champa Kumari and Genda Kumari, two fiesty sisters whose love-hate relationship is at the centre of Vishal Bhardwaj's new film Pataakha, personify the adage 'can't live with them, can't live without'.
Champa (Radhika Madan) is the older sister " as reflected by her nickname Badki. And then there's Chutki (Sanya Malhotra) aka Genda aka Marigold, as her English-speaking husband calls her lovingly. While Badki is a tempestuous simpleton who is happy with her beedis, gets along more with cows than humans and aspires to own a dairy one day, Champa is a dreamer, and wants to be a teacher. They live with their father (played by the ever-brilliant Vijay Raaz) in a village in Rajasthan and their lives are driven by a tooth-and-nail sibling rivalry and one-up-(wo)man-ship. Champa and Genda do not get along, and it's the biggest bane of their existence. Throw in a jester " Sunil Grover plays Dipper, a quintessential Vishal Bhardwaj-esque character who is equal parts the narrator and equal parts the cinematic lubricant " and an effortlessly raw and rural setting, and you're sucked into the film's milieu.
Too simple? That's because the premise of Pataakha comes from a short story written by Charan Singh Pathik that is only six pages long. Vishal Bhardwaj's mastery can be seen in the specifics. In how the sisters converse with each other (with venomous expletives and glaring glances) and yet retain agency and gaze. The story of Pataakha meanders from its core of sibling rivalry only when it's trying to explore the sisters' ambition. Their father, husbands, family and even Dipper, are merely the chorus. The humour in the film is accidental and yet topical; like when Champa asks Dipper, right before she enters a film, whether Salman Khan will remove his pants as well, or when Dipper tells Genda's husband to stop being "Trump ke tau" because he's obsessed with English. You'll find yourself giggling when Dipper wants to take a "sulfie" or when Champa's husband calls her Bloody Mary when she gets too angry.
Many directors have managed to capture the essence, dialect and inherent charm of rural India, but Vishal Bhardwaj takes it one step further with Pataakha. This is a quirky family film that entertains, and isn't ever melodramatic. I know, I know, "quirky" is an overdone word, like "out-of-the-box" " but if there's a film in recent memory that aptly lives up to both titles, it is Pataakha. Here, take one more label: this is slice-of-life at its best.
But when it comes to Vishal Bhardwaj, can symbolism be far away? The nuanced viewer will search for a deeper meaning through the film, and Bhardwaj teases this in parts.
He compares the two sisters to India and Pakistan, and there are several references to a metaphorical batwaara (split). I can't remember the last time Bollywood gave us a story of two sisters as candid and wholesome as this. This is really their story, and nobody else's. Pataakha also celebrates its more "commercial" moments; the sisters indulge in their fair share of song and dance, and there's a consistent whiff of mischief throughout Pataakha.
Sanya Malhotra and Radhika Madan fit the characters like a glove. Sanya especially stands out as the younger sister, bringing a sense of vulnerability to her performance. Watch out for a scene where she marvels at herself in a mirror while wearing new clothes. Radhika's Badki is the yang in this yin-yang combination; the debutante actor seems to have given this performance her all. And every time Sunil Grover smiles, you want to smile with him.
Pataakha is an oxymoron. It's explosive but subtle; it's emotive but doesn't take itself too seriously as a film. It could have benefited with a tighter edit, but for the most part I couldn't take my eyes away from the screen. Pataakha is an indulgence worth investing in.