Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983) was one of a handful of films in which two amazing actresses came together in well-matched roles. The first one was Arth (1982) and Mandi followed close on its heels. The earliest one, Nishant, was clearly Shabana’s film with Smita in a lesser role. A satirical tale verging on black comedy, Mandi dealt with the buying and selling of human flesh. The hypocrisy associated with the buyers was matched equally in parts by the avarice of the sellers but also their ultimate honesty in the approach to these transactions. Is prostitution a blot on society, or is it the band-aid that contains the disease of society and prevents it from erupting into something bigger and worse? Who is right? The madam who shelters abandoned women, but also trains them to ply the trade, or the hypocritical social and political leaders who profit from these businesses while having questionable morals?
The story is told in a raw and uncompromising way – Shabana plays the madam, Rukmini Bai, who controls a bevy of young women plying the oldest trade in the books. The prize of the kotha is the “virginal” Zeenat (Smita Patil), who is sheltered and pampered and spoilt by Rukmini. Naseeruddin Shah in trademark shorts and scruffy shirts plays the jack of all trades, Tungrus, who runs errands, scrubs the girls backs, get them tea and food and chases off marauders. He is servile and obedient in the daytime and drunk and disorderly at night, telling off Rukmini Bai for her misdeeds and her parrot for his name-calling!
The portrait is completed by the businessman Gupta Ji, played by a dashing young Kulbhushan Kharbanda who has the look in his eye every time he visits the bordello, but no time to sample the wares as he is too busy making money; and the local politician Aggarwal, played by an unctuous Sayeed Jaffrey who has managed to stay financially afloat by getting his son engaged to Gupta ji’s daughter. If you thought this was enough talent for one venture – then wait, there is more! A do-gooder Nari Niketan head Shanti Devi is played by Geeta Siddharth, one of her henchmen is Pankaj Kapur, a photographer with a roving eye and lens is played by Om Puri, a wandering fakir by Amrish Puri, and among the ladies peddling their wares we have Neena Gupta (Vaasanti), Sreela Majumdar (playing a mute Phoolmani), Ratna Pathak, Ila Arun, Soni Razdan!
In this venture Shyam Benegal assembled talent enough to bury a lesser film. So how do you take so much talent and put it together and come out with a coherent narrative that makes use of all the pieces and does justice to all the characters? You can do it if you are a Benegal. The girls have no back-story – except for Sreela and Smita. But they are real and an integral part of the film. Neena Gupta played the siren who dances her way into the heart of the photographer and is jealous of the attention paid to Zeenat. The photographer is armed with a camera and looking for expose pictures but also helps Rukmini Bai foil the Nari Niketan attempt to purify the city of her evil influence. Aggarwal sahab’s son falls for Zeenat in a big way and is ready to abandon all for her. But Aggarwal sahab and Rukmini bai have a dark secret and a past history that Zeenat is unaware of.
Guptaji moves the bordello to the countryside, and the town moves out to meet it, increasing the value of his property even more. And as the veil lifts over exactly who Zeenat is, there is a coup being staged to oust Rukmini Bai. The fakir, played by a particularly bug-eyed Amrish Puri (‘Badi bewakoof aurat hai!’), alters the fate of Rukmini Bai at key points. The story is rich, layered, and full of colorful and complete characters. And the issues tackled are timeless and serious. In the final scene as Phoolmani escapes from the Nari Niketan, we know which side Benegal is coming down on. But he does not let the body trade go scot free because we do have Phoolmani’s attempts to escape from Rukmini Bai’s kotha, attempts that verge on suicidal at times. But the corruption of the politicians, the machinations of the businessmen, and the hypocrisy of the social worker (‘she is having an affair with her son-in-law you know’ – proclaims Rukmini Bai!) are all slowly exposed as the story moves along.
Shyam Benegal has had a special facility with telling the tales of women and his films have often been very woman centric. The ultimate were Bhumika and Zubeidaa, but the main characters in Nishaant and Ankur were also the women. Mandi is the tale of not one, but two women, and many other women around these two key characters. Before I get to the two crowning jewels of Mandi, I do want to talk about other performances in the film. Naseeruddin Shah towers as Tungrus, alternating as the slavish majordomo and the drunk surly haranguer. And he immerses himself into this role that is omnipresent and yet unimportant in some sense. The same is seen with Kulbhushan Kharbanda – Benegal never distracts from the story with unnecessary entanglements and romances. Saeed Jaffrey and Om Puri are significant presences that round out the narrative. Om Puri is young and dashing and a philandering photographer who falls for one of the ladies in the brothel. Pankaj Kapur reminds one of Tarneja of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, with the same stutter and mannerisms. How did he get from that to Maqbool? The women are fantastic in this film and their characters complex – even the less significant ones like the spoilt, child-like daughter of Gupta Ji is shown to be a hypochondriac waiting for the doctor (kid games of Doctor Doctor?), and the rough and tough manageress of the bordello who deals with the day to day transactions and pushes Phoolmani to the verge of suicide, or Ratna Pathak as the woman who is the havaldar’s “steady”, bears his children and yet still plies the trade. Phoolmani is played by Sreela Majumdar – she is mute and her anguish at how she is tricked and her inability to deal with the goings on at Rukmini Bai’s are all shown by her facial expressions and her eyes.
This brings me to the two incomparable greats of Hindi cinema – Shabana and Smita. They were of similar age, yet Shabana takes on the role of the senior Madam who brings up Zeenat. Her persona is shrill and loud and complaining towards all but Zeeant. Her body language (with bosom thrust out) and a quaint somewhat bow-legged gait of an older woman is very convincing. She is never cold, and never dull. Smita’s Zeenat on the other hand is young, virginal and a prize possession at the brothel. She has a simple and uncomplicated attitude towards life and towards her virginity – very apt for the environment she has grown up in. Her body language is never bold, but neither is it bashful.
When she finds love and also sees it go beyond her reach, she is able to convey the shock and loss without any words. When she finally confronts her lot in life in front of the parrot’s cage and makes a decision you want to fly with her! Shabana and Smita deliver outstanding performances and lift Mandi to a sublime plane. No one up-stages the other, in fact they complement each other beautifully like a jugal bandi at the hands of two artists who have honed their craft to perfection. Boasting of authentic settings, a great story, a social message, and exceptional acting by the entire cast, Mandi is one that must not be missed. Oh and the film has very good music too, composed by Vanraj Bhatia – two of the clips I posted have samples.
This post first appeared here