Kaagaz movie review: Pankaj Tripathi fills a dead man’s tale with life, energy, humour and pathos in equal measure

Satish Kaushik’s Kaagaz is based on the bizarre true story of Lal Bihari who spent nearly two decades trying to re-record his existence in government records.

Anna MM Vetticad January 07, 2021 13:52:34 IST


Language: Hindi

At any other time in India’s history, the title Kaagaz would have meant just “paper”, literally. Alternatively, in the context of this film, it would have specifically and only meant the document on which a corrupt UP village official declared a living human being called Lal Bihari dead in the 1970s, having accepted a bribe to do so from the man’s uncle and cousins who then usurped their relative’s land. In today’s India though, where the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) have been widely criticised for their potential to disenfranchise rightful Indian citizens, kaagaz means a lot more, echoing writer Varun Grover’s defiant poem, Hum kaagaz nahin dikhayenge (We will not show our papers), that became a rallying cry during 2019-20’s pan-India anti-CAA-NRC protests. 

Grover’s words come to mind when Salman Khan’s voice bookends this film as he reads out a poem (written by Aseem) describing the omni-presence of paper in our lives – in the form of kites, flags, contracts, birth and death certificates, deeds to property, letters – and its role in defining who we are, “…Kuchh nahin hai magar hai sab kuchh bhi. Kya ajab cheez hai yeh kaagaz bhi.” (It is nothing yet it is everything / how unique is paper.)

Writer-director Satish Kaushik is a supporter of the present PM, so it seems unlikely that he would have intended this reading of his film but, well, cinema, like kaagaz, is an ajab cheez that belongs as much to the receiver as to the creator once it is sent out into the world.

Kaushik’s Kaagaz is based on the bizarre true story of Lal Bihari who spent nearly two decades trying to re-record his existence in government records, even assuming the name Lal Bihari Mritak (The Dead) in protest against the treatment being meted out to him. The film calls its protagonist Bharat Lal Mritak, evidently to guard against legal action by other players in this real-life drama that has been chronicled by both the Indian and international media. It leaves no room for doubt though about whose biopic it is when the closing text on screen offers a sketch of “Lal Bihari Mritak” and his "Mritak Sangh" (Organisation of the Dead), the closing shot shows lead actor Pankaj Tripathi with Lal Bihari, and the credits roll on an entire album of photographs of the latter.

Kaagaz begins with an innocuous event. Lal Bihari (Tripathi) runs a troupe of musicians who play at weddings and other functions. Urged by his wife to expand his business, he applies for a bank loan, for which he must offer collateral. The land he inherited from his late father would be sufficient for this purpose, but when he seeks out the deed to the land, he discovers that his uncle’s family had illegally taken it over after getting him declared dead on paper.
Kaagaz movie review Pankaj Tripathi fills a dead mans tale with life energy humour and pathos in equal measure

Pankaj Tripathi in a still from Kaagaz. Image from Youtube.

Thence begins his activism to reverse this injustice, which leads to the formation of the Mritak Sangh when he learns that there are many like him in Uttar Pradesh and across India. 

A government and a bureaucracy refusing, for almost 20 years, to officially recognise the being of an individual standing before them in flesh and blood – the situation is so absurd that it defies belief. Yet it did happen. And Kaushik relates the details with an apt blend of comedy and poignance, pulling back at just the right moment mid-way through the film when the narrative teeters on the precipice of becoming as farcical in tone as the reality it recounts. 

Kaagaz effectively underlines the fact that the tragedy of Lal Bihari aka Bharat Lal Mritak’s saga lies not just in his personal suffering but in the matter-of-factness with which he and other characters accept that corruption, bribe-taking and bribe-giving are an inextricable and inerasable part of life in India. (Note that scene in which Bharat Lal offers cash to a policeman.)

Not unexpectedly, Tripathi shines in the role of Bharat Lal, injecting his performance with an optimal mix of energy, despair, humour and pathos. Coming just months after his moving take on a supportive feminist father in Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, Kaagaz is another feather in his already feather-lined filmography. 

Kaagaz’s heft comes from the fleshing out of two supporting characters: Bharat Lal’s wife Rukmani (played endearingly by M. Monal Gajjar) whose life is most affected by her husband’s mission, and a reputedly honest politician (Mita Vashisht) whose reaction to Bharat Lal’s case is more enlightening than any other person involved. 

That heft is considerably curtailed, however, by the script’s limited layering. Little insight is offered, for one, into the part played by caste, class and gender in Bharat Lal’s circumstances or his ability and freedom to fight his years-long battle. And a fleeting (poorly enacted) conversation between two women about how men marginalise women is jarring because it is designed to sound frivolous, not serious, and thus makes light of the reality of patriarchy in a film that is purportedly raising a voice for the voiceless. 

This scene, brief and on the sidelines though it is, is particularly disappointing because Kaagaz’s focus on Rukmani’s plight is crucial and unusual: a wife who is left taking care of the hearth and home while a husband – whether an activist or a sant – attains glory pursuing a higher cause is rarely offered empathy as she is here. 

Kaushik himself as Bharat Lal’s lawyer, Brijendra Kala as a judge and Amar Upadhyay as a shady state legislator are among the actors who stand out in the supporting cast. 

A couple of the bit-part players in Kaagaz are tacky though, and subtract from the film’s finesse, as do the grammatical errors in the closing text and the misspelt names in the closing credits. The narrative also lags somewhat towards the latter part of the second half, especially when it gets preachy in passing via a journalist who is otherwise realistically written and well-acted by Neha Chauhan (Love Sex Aur Dhokha, G Kutta Se). And while the poetry reading by a star of Khan’s stature elevates the significance of those lines and their impact in Kaagaz, there is just too much narration by Kaushik’s character (with Tripathi piping up unexpectedly at one point in the background). 

Still, Kaagaz is an enjoyable and important film, held together by its largely assured direction and by Tripathi, one of contemporary Bollywood’s finest actors.

Kaagaz is currently streaming on Zee5. Watch the trailer here —

Rating: 3 (out of 5 stars)

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