Two details at the start of Kaagaz instantly turned me off. First, we hear the voice of Salman Khan (also the film’s producer) deliver the opening narration — replaced, quickly and inexplicably, by the voice of Satish Kaushik (also the film’s director). Then comes a montage: tranquil village scenes straight out of a government broadcast. It’s ample indication that, despite the uniqueness of its story, Kaagaz will take the most obvious route to tell it.
Bharat Lal (Pankaj Tripathi) is an ordinary bandmaster in Amilo, Uttar Pradesh. At his wife’s urging, he agrees to get a loan on his ancestral land, only to discover that his relatives have declared him dead on official records. This is a real offence — prevalent through the 70s and later — and Bharat Lal is rightly indignant. Still, for a long while, he adheres to process, fighting a court case while writing urgent petitions to government overlords.
But when none of that manages to elicit a reply, he decides to bend a few rules. Inspired by the life of Lal Bihari Mritak, a farmer who was listed dead on official papers, Kaagaz has the fixings of a great satire. Much of the film is built around Bharat Lal’s attempts to get himself arrested — and thus get his name into the records. There’s great comic potential here, let down by callow humour and a blanket lack of wit. Some of the gags are mistimed: Bharat Lal kidnapping his own nephew suggests a character completely different from the righteous activist he’ll become.
Elsewhere, a thick slab of melodrama descends, like when he sends his wife to enroll for the widow’s pension scheme. Satish Kaushik is one of our steadiest actor-directors, thriving especially in mainstream fare. But the social realism of Kaagaz largely eludes him. Now and then, it’s hard to shake off the film’s old-world feel. There’s a duet featuring Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan. There’s an item number to make Vishal Bhardwaj wince.
The casting of Pankaj Tripathi doesn’t help — for all his easy malleability, the actor is too devoted to his director for his own good. A more grounded performance is turned in by Monal Gajjar, as Bharat Lal’s softly disparaging wife. Late in the film, we see a mob rallying towards a government building. Seething with anger, they push past barricades and raid the offices holding them down. Given the recent siege at the US Capitol, it’s the kind of silly coincidence that makes you sit up and take notice of the film. It’s also terribly sad: the fact that such an incredible Indian story needs a foreign reference point to feel relevant.
Director: Satish Kaushik