Mantra movie review: Adil Hussain and encounters with strangers stand out in an uneven film
Director: Nicholas Kharkongor
In an early scene from Mantra, a little girl at a shop counter asks for King Chips. All around her there lie only packets of the upstart brand Kipper, which the shopkeeper is hardselling. She is undeterred. King Chips is what she wants and King Chips is all she will have. The dukaandaar finally gives in, fetching a packet from a corner at the back of his establishment where he had stashed it away from the gaze of customers, not having bargained for this one insistent child.
Her loyalty is rare in a market where money buys visibility and where consumer choices could be driven as much by a lack of alternatives as by natural inclinations, Indian cinema itself being a case in point. What, for instance, might the girl have done, if she had been told that Kipper was the only brand in stock? Would she have had the time to scour the market? Would she have given up eating chips altogether?
Questions, questions… They come up at every juncture of director Nicholas Kharkongor’s crowd-funded film set in New Delhi in 2004, when the protagonist Kapil Kapoor’s home-grown business is on the verge of bankruptcy as his King Chips struggles against the greater resources of Kipper’s multinational owners.
Rajat Kapoor plays Kapil a.k.a. KK, whose losing battle with Kipper has destroyed his peace of mind. His wife Meenakshi (Lushin Dubey) is wilting under the weight of their loveless marriage. Meanwhile, KK is trying to be an attentive father to their children who he once neglected. Their 28-year-old son Viraj (Shiv Pandit) does not want anything to do with his Dad’s company, opting instead to start a restaurant chain, from the name of which the film derives its title. Daughter Pia (Kalki Koechlin) is a chef in Mantra Delhi. At 25, she wants a life of greater independence from her father who she resents. The family of five is rounded off by their much younger sibling Vir (Rohan Joshi) who, at 16, has discovered love and sex on the Internet.
The Kapoors’ public facade of normalcy hides great professional and personal turmoil.
KK is the point at which the old and new collide, in a world where “mantra” could indicate a cool hangout to a hip youngster or our vulnerable Bhartiya sanskriti to an aggressive nationalist. Manmohan Singh and P.V. Narasimha Rao’s liberalisation policies from the 1990s have altered India forever. Atal Bihari Vajyapee’s PM-ship is coming to an end, but Hindutvavaadi forces are still on the rise. In this cauldron of change, family is sometimes a source of solace, but very often not.
Mantra has several ingredients that work in its favour. Kharkongor’s script is often observant, and touches upon multiple issues without seeming self-conscious about its social conscience. The background score is pleasant, soothing and almost thoughtful. And though this is not a dominant factor, I enjoyed the artwork on the walls of the Kapoor home.
If the film does not come together as a whole, it is for clearly identifiable reasons: first, the cast is a mixed bag; second, the English dialogues do not sit well on several of them; third, the equation between the five Kapoors is not fully established, as a result of which I found myself rooting for some of them as individuals but not for the family as a whole (unlike, say, the equally unhappy Mehras who we met in Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do in 2015).
Curiously enough, Mantra’s most memorable passages involve a brief encounter between a Kapoor and an absolute stranger: KK’s comfort level with a bemused truck driver, Pia trying to knock logic into the heads of misogynistic policemen, the humour in KK’s drunken night-time revelry with an unnamed drug user, and – above all – a poignant conversation between Pia and a restaurant delivery man who responds to her call for help in a life-threatening situation.
These episodes give us glimpses of Kharkongor’s potential in an otherwise inconsistent film.
Koechlin and Pandit are the pick of the primary cast. Dubey is awkward throughout. And Rajat Kapoor’s likeable screen presence cannot camouflage his discomfort with his English lines though he seems fine while occasionally speaking Hindi in the film.
He is still better off than Maya Rao and a couple of the other supporting artistes, who sound like they are spouting English dialogues written for Western characters in a Western play that has not been adapted to the Indian English idiom. We see too many such productions on the Delhi stage.
The blame for this unevenness rests mostly with the writing, though the actors must take some responsibility too, if you consider that Koechlin and Pandit slip in and out of English and Hindi without sounding mannered at all while speaking English, as some of their seniors in the film do.
Which brings me to an important question: why on earth do we not see more of Shiv Pandit as a hero in films? Or Adil Hussain? Pandit manages to draw something out of his role despite the limited exploration of his character in the script. And Hussain rules with an appearance that lasts barely a couple of minutes.
That scene in which Pia breaks down while confiding in his character, a migrant from Jharkhand, is the stand-out moment in Mantra. Give us more where that came from, Mr Kharkongor.