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Pataakha movie review / Go back

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Pataakha
Director - Vishal Bhardwaj
Cast - Sanya Malhotra, Radhika Madan, Sunil Grover, Vijay Raaz
Rating - 4/5

If these sisters are named after flowers, they must be flowers that hate each other. This is the story of a raucous rivalry, of duelling sticks of dynamite who steal each other’s stolen beedis and spark each other’s fuses. Fuelled by fury, they are either on the warpath or standing by, demanding to be offended. These are perpetually flammable girls with tongues sharp and savage as maanja used to cut down rival kites flying over a neighbour’s roof. The garish swearwords they spit out — about noseless witches and wives of frogs — are straight out of folklore. (Do curses and hexes cancel each other out?)

Pataakha is Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of a short story by Charan Singh Pathik. In the beginning, it felt a bit flat to me. Too many Hindi films set in small towns and unfamiliar villages are now adept at milking dialect and surroundings for laughs, but Bhardwaj keeps things raw. The dialogues steer clear of predictable punchlines and we may not be used to films refusing to try too hard. Coming from a master director, this feels like a minor film — about two minors, daughters of a miner — till we get to see what these firecrackers are dreaming about.

Watch the Pataakha trailer here


One wants to go to school so she can open one of her own, the other wants to stay out of school and start her own dairy. Their eyes gleam when looking at blackboards and pasteurisation facilities respectively, and they’re willing to battle hard for their ambitions. They are the two most wanted women in the village, made eligible because of their headstrong pluck. They meet their suitors by first physically overpowering them, and then relent. They choose to enjoy the first flush of rural romance, courted against the backdrop of motorcycling daredevils and lassi stores. They are in charge.


Pataakha is Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of a short story by Charan Singh Pathik.
Here is the film’s plot: two sisters fight. The short story Do Behnein is six pages long, and starts only as Pataakha enters its second half. Bhardwaj takes these hysterical sisters at each other’s throats and turns them into a metaphor for India and Pakistan, locked in an endless cycle of sniping. It is an unsubtle analogy but effective in its crude directness, like a street-play. The heart bleeds for the girls’ hapless father, stranded in no man’s land. The great Vijay Raaz plays this father of the nation with a defeated dignity. It is a fragile, affecting performance in a film full of louder ones, as if he is too tired. His shoulders are slumped with the effort to always be equal. Once in a while he smiles, like when delousing both his daughters at once, with the dexterity of a tabla player.


Bhardwaj takes these hysterical sisters at each other’s throats and turns them into a metaphor for India and Pakistan.
The narrator is no such sad figure. Nicknamed Dipper because of an errant eye — and played with roguish sleaziness by Sunil Grover — he is a remnant of Bhardwaj’s infatuation with Shakespeare, a troublemaking character equal parts Iago and Puck. Like a wrestling promoter, he sparks off the biggest sister wars, and concocts harebrained schemes with abandon. As I said, it’s a street-play.

The elder sister, Champa Kumari, frequently bites her lip. She’s a big sister defined by her younger sister — forever called ‘Badki’ instead of by name — and even when stealing her little sister’s western-wear, she makes sure to properly cover up the sleeping girl with a blanket. She has her own entourage, one of whom she scolds for spontaneously applauding ‘Chhutki,’ and sits among them at the town fair with a pair of binoculars, scoping out (and immediately dismissing) men. Radhika Madan positively shines in this feisty, bossy role, unwavering in dialect and determination. The way she bites her dupatta in mock-shyness, the way she boasts about her smartphone, the way she brandishes a clothes-iron… She’s priceless.


Radhika Madan positively shines in this feisty, bossy role, unwavering in dialect and determination.
Then there’s Genda Kumari, the younger sister, called ‘Marigold’ by her English-speaking Army boyfriend. (He wisely has a nickname for her when she’s angrier, Bloody Mary.) She is perpetually coiled to strike. Checking to see if Badki has a fever, Chhutki smacks her in the forehead. She is a feckless girl, grinning her widest when she comes up with suitably nuclear abuse, and Sanya Malhotra plays this character with unhinged enthusiasm. At one point we are shown her in school, learning active and passive voice, and I can only marvel at the kind of profanity she will someday conjure. She’s a delightfully scrappy character, and Malhotra appears to be a fearless actress.

The music doesn’t get in the way. The soundtrack works when underlining the story, but can’t quite stand on its own. A glossy song from the trailers featuring the glossy Malaika Arora Khan has been rightly excised from this gloriously grimy film. Pataakha is a film at odds with polish. This is the director making a down and dirty quickie, and yet this film emerges more resonant than many that advertise their ambition across their posters.


Sanya Malhotra plays her character with unhinged enthusiasm
The delights are in the details. The turns of phrase are rollicking and unassumingly poetic. Badki, appalled by the ticket prices for a new film, wonders if this time Salman Khan — an actor famous for climactically removing his shirt — will take his pants off as well. Later, the narrator compares the girls to balloons while calling their nightmares pin-pricks, making them go boom.

At one point, when the sisters are going tooth and nail at each other, lathis in hand and action at full-tilt, there is a shot of their daughters, faces frozen in fear, sickened by this vulgar physicality. Those girls may well be a stand-in for us watching diplomatic talks between the two countries break down yet again. Embarrassed and mortified, they watch their mothers fight.

As a nation, India claims to loathe Pakistan, but lashes out with the kind of vehemence reserved for one of our own. We may, for instance, crow about conquering them in every World Cup game we’ve played, but against England in 1992, we were all cheering Imran Khan’s boys in green. If you want to beat them, get in line. They’re ours.

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