There’s an uncanny timeliness to the delayed release of Mohalla Assi. Directed by Pinjar-fame Chandraprakash Dwivedi, this film wrapped production in 2011 but kept hitting roadblocks: starting with alleged non-payment of dues and concluding with a censor clampdown on the rough language. Meanwhile, in 2015, the film was leaked online and declared a canned attempt — like the many there be. Yet, as it arrives in theatres in 2018, weighed down by the long and hard run, its core potential seems doubly undeniable.
Set between 1988-1998 and inspired by the writings of Dr. Kashi Nath Singh, the film seeks to chart a transformative decade in Indian history. All of this is embedded in animated conversations at Varanasi’s Pappu Ka Dukan, a street chai-shop where local eggheads come to debate and discourse. It all sounds potent material, the kind of talk-heavy political drama typical of independent theatre, but the film loses spunk every time its lead character turns up to tea.
Dharamnath Pandey (Sunny Deol) is an orthodox Brahmin priest and a Sanskit instructor who scoffs at all the liberalisation around him. He dislikes foreign tourists, who raid his beloved Assi Ghat seeking Moksha and cheap house-rents. He’s also a rude husband and an unkind father.
Telly goddess Sakshi Tanwar, appearing as Deol’s demure but hard-nosed wife, outshines her co-star. She expresses protest with a muted fury and — in a film full of North Indian men hurtling gaalis in varied accents — gets the Banarasi twang just right.
Mohalla Assi is choked with subtext, delivering emphatic commentary on a bygone era. The script has a prophetic air. However, in execution, the director adapts a grammar so ancient and crude that he ends up defeating the whole purpose. Despite all the swearing and showboating, this film looks and feels consistently dated.
The author critiques films, documentaries and commercial alike.