Madaari review: Irrfan Khan’s gentle presence elevates a middling film
Irrfan Khan makes Madaari a film worth watching
Playing a person with eccentricities may be tough, but way tougher — as most actors worth their salt will tell you — is to play a regular Jo.
That is what Irrfan Khan’s character Nirmal Kumar is, in director Nishikant Kamat’s Madaari: Sshhh Desh So Raha Hai. Khan (credited here, as in many of his films now, sans the surname) plays a techie who has the audacity to kidnap a top politician’s son as revenge for his own child’s death in a civic tragedy caused by corruption.
“I was the ideal voter, so caught up in running my household and my life that I bought into every dream you sold me, I believed every word the media told me.”
This line spoken by Nirmal Kumar is at the heart of Madaari, a thriller revolving around the plight of the common people exploited and deceived by India’s politicians. In a sense, the point being made is that we are all responsible, each in our own way, for the mess that we are in, from the country’s seniormost government functionaries, to political party workers who cheat the exchequer and public for personal and organisational gain, government employees, the private sector, a sensation-chasing news media and even gullible voters.
What happens though when one of those voters sees the light and rises up in protest? What if India’s aam insaan (ordinary people) were to take the law into their own hands?
In a sense, Madaari works along the same lines as Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday (2008), in which Naseeruddin Shah’s character — known throughout the film only as The Common Man — took it upon himself to punish terrorists that the system would not. Nirmal in Madaari chooses instead to punish the system itself. Jimmy Sheirgill, who was in that earlier film too, here plays CBI supercop Nachiket Verma whose actions in Madaari echo the words of Anupam Kher’s Mumbai police commissioner in A Wednesday, both of them representing the film’s own endorsement of the central antagonist’s behaviour.
The anarchic premise in both cases is problematic, and must be widely debated. The cinematic virtues of Madaari are less debatable.
Kamat, who just last year delivered the marvelous thriller Drishyam starring Ajay Devgn, falls short in his execution of the suspense in Madaari. His directorial hand is not the film’s Achilles heel though, its primary weakness is the written material he has to work with.
Madaari’s story by Shailja Kejriwal and screenplay by Ritesh Shah (who is also credited with the dialogues) struggle through their efforts to meld mystery and political commentary. Besides, although we are effectively drawn into Nirmal Kumar’s world, the other characters are not immersive in the way they needed to be for the film to be an all-round absorbing affair. Besides, it is unclear why, in his bid to cast the spotlight on corruption, Nirmal abducts the son of a minister who seems like a decent guy and a victim of the system himself.
Too many broad brush strokes and hurried asides stand in for detailing and nuance. When a character speaks of a political operative called Kumaraswamy who is responsible for managing the media in the present imbroglio, a dark-complexioned guy with a decorated forehead and a ‘south Indian’ accent passes by. The usually reliable Sheirgill lends a contrived air of hurriedness to Nachiket, and looks as if he is playing a game of cops and robbers rather than being involved in his role. And as with most Hindi films in which the news media plays an important role, here too a single journalist from a single media house (in this case a loud anchor from a news channel called Swatantra TV) breaks every tiny bit of news there is to be broken, so that you know he is being built up to play a crucial role at some later point in the plot.
Even Madaari’s pivotal what-you-see-is-not-always-what-you-get twist is not as impressive as the creators seem to think it is.
Avinash Arun’s cinematography, on the other hand, repeatedly lifts the film above the mundane, even occasionally giving us grandeur without seeking to overwhelm or overshadow the people in his frames. It is particularly worth mentioning the way the camera dwells on Khan/Nirmal’s beautiful face without seeming star-struck.
The songs are poorly fitted into the film though. The independent video of Dama dama dam — composed by Vishal Bhardwaj, sung by Vishal Dadlani and available on Youtube — is quite attractive, which suggests that it might have worked well as part of Madaari’s background music. Here though it is foregrounded to overbearing effect.
Masoom sa (voice: Sukhwinder Singh, lyrics: Irshad Kamil, music: Sunny Bawra-Inder Bawra) is blatantly emotionally manipulative. Singh is one of the Hindi film industry’s best singers, but his near-weeping tone here actually subtracts from the innate poignancy of the scenes playing out while this song plays in the film.
Yet — and that is a very big yet, to be underlined and then highlighted with a yellow marker — none of this should take away from the fact that Irrfan Khan delivers an affectingly tender performance in Madaari. As one of the film’s only two well-written characters (the other being the minister’s son), and aided by what appears to be good chemistry with his director, Khan invests himself so thoroughly in Nirmal Kumar that he compels us to invest in the man.
Neither of Madaari’s two child actors has the charisma to match up to him. Still, Khan persuades us to invest in them too. The subtleties he brings to his character make it impossible to look away even when too much else around him does not add up.
If the surname Khan has become synonymous with superstardom in the Bollywood lexicon, then the name Irrfan should be officially recognised as an adjective for quality acting. This Khan makes Madaari a film worth watching. And his presence in contemporary cinema, makes this world a better place to live in.
Censorship footnote: Can there be a more telling comment on the present ‘system’ than that a film on corruption has had to deal with the Censor Board’s touchiness about a specific reference to Delhi and India in the song Dama dama dam. Among other changes, the filmmaker had to drop the words: “Bina tel ke janta dho di / Dilli baittha bada virodhi re.” Rough translation (open to interpretation, of course): “The public has been taken for a ride / hostile forces have occupied Delhi.” This was replaced with: “Raja tuney izzat kho di / tu hi apna bada virodhi re.” (Oh king, you have lost our respect / you are our greatest enemy). And “…Inn sab ne hai milkar tthani / bechke Bharat Ma kha jaani re (They have jointly decided to sell off Mother India to serve their own interests)” had to be changed to “Inn sab ne hai milkar tthani / bechke yeh duniya kha jaani re (They have jointly decided to sell the world to serve their own interests).”
The geniuses in the Board did not, however, notice this snide one thrown in by the lyricist: “Anpadh baittha shiksha baate (The uneducated are handling education).” Smriti Irani may have lost the HRD Ministry recently, but the point is still relevant. Nice touch of impertinence, Irshad Kamil.
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