Pataakha is a picnic: a celebrated director, nine films old and understandably irate with entourage, assembles a bunch of newbies for the 10th one, and packs off to Rajasthan. Some of the actors are not even new — Vijay Raaz, Sunil Grover, Namit Das — but they don fresh haircuts and play along just the same. This is a film made with a lot of goodwill, and everyone pitches in.
The setting is flavoursome. A Rajasthani variant of the Gujjar dialect trickles down as sweet poison from roughened tongues — swearwords, for some reason, always invoke family (Saand Ki Maa, Trump Ke Tau, Shah Rukh Ke Aulad). Family is what drives the plot too, about a jaded mineral prospector and his warring daughters, Champa and Genda Kumari, nicknamed by age as Badki and Chhutki.
The film opens with a schoolyard brawl over nicked beedis, which makes it clear that the rivalry is less feudal and more pathological in nature. These are siblings who fight for the heck of it, get chased around with a stick by their father, and return home puffing and passing the same smoke. One would happily sell the other off if the chance arrives, but in a scene where fate provides just as much, a protective glimmer shines in both pairs of eyes.
Vishal Bhardwaj is known for his impeccable casting. On his watch, debutant Radhika Madan delivers a furious performance as the dauntless Badki, often stealing scenes with a rustic sharpness and a blade-like chin. Despite her urban pedigree, the 23-year-old actor flinches not a bit when kissing a buffalo on its head or collapsing into cow-dung mid-squabble. Badki is the slower flame — the Diwali fountain that takes time to spark but shines doubly bright (in one scene, we see her catching sight of Chhutki with her lover at a fairground, and only then deciding to take a lover herself).
Dangal girl Sanya Malhotra is blistering as the flustered Chhutki. Her nose is perked in a perpetual twitch, and her hair blends in with the corn-farm she razes. ‘Chhutki’ is the loose cracker — instantly flammable and dangerous at close range; Jealous of ‘Badki’s’ new haircut, she goes about raising hell in a bright western wear and stands admiring herself in mock-pleasure before a mirror. Here’s an actor who can play to two screens.
Why do the sisters fight? Some explanation is offered by the narrator, a conniving village idiot named Dipper (Sunil Grover), who compares the situation to the India-Pakistan stand-off. Dipper, in that sense, is a fill-in for Mass Media: he pits siblings against each other, shapeshifts constantly from friend to foe, dramatizes war-sounds for lurid effect, and, in the film’s most brutal touch, uses a ‘selfie’ to propagate hate. Everyone at some point becomes an accomplice or victim of Dipper’s schemes — including the slyly-named ‘Bapu’, father of both factions, played with sluggish poise by Vijay Raaz.
Pataakha is shot through with everyday lyricism: There’s a crew-cut Army man who shudders to raise his voice; a lecherous loon who settles for a Nepali bride; and a fragile grandma who pines for a trip to Kashi. Cinematographer Ranjan Palit has no qualms exposing his lens to the grime and dust of rural Rajasthan—in one night scene, even the incidental digital noise seems part of the milieu, like minuscule fireflies glowing in the dark. The music may sound contrived from time to time (Arijit Singh’s voice in the romantic track ‘Naina Banjare’ is too distracting for a film this raw), but the blessed duo of Rekha Bhardwaj and Sunidhi Chauhan arrives in time with the swooning, swirling ‘Balma’.
The second half struggles to hold attention, despite genuine effort by the actors. Time and again, it falls back upon the Indo-Pak metaphor to fish out new conflict — some blend in, others don’t. This is where the film gets tedious, much like the diplomatic deadlocks it sets out to mock. Pataakha has enough combustion to light up a night sky, but it fizzles out like a moist rocket. The crackers, like they say, needed more sunning.