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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Mohalla Assi, Review: Holy river, unholy Babas

Mohalla Assi, Review: Holy river, unholy Babas

He’ll get there, eventually. Beginning with the TV serial Chanakya (321 BC-283 BC), about the life and times of the master strategist in the Maurya dynasty period (322 BC-185 BC), Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi gave us a good follow-up in the form of the feature film Pinjar, set in India’s partition, circa 1947.  After three more period dramas, largely unseen, he now lands up in more recent history, with the 2004 story published in 2008, Mohalla Assi, set in 1988-98. Well, he is still a good twenty years behind present day, but what are two decades in the hands of a maker who deals in millennia?

Mohalla is Hindustani for street/lane and Assi is eighty; the title translates as Street Eighty. With Holy river Ganges (Ganga) all around, lanes in the Holy city of Varanasi (Kashi/Banaras) are named numerically. All the main characters in Mohalla Assi live in this street and also ply their trades/professions here. Pinjar was based on an Amrita Pritam story while Mohalla Assi is a composite of two composite stories: Kashi ka Assi, by Prof. Kashinath Singh (now 81) and the iconic tea-stall, Pappu ki Dukaan (Pappu’s shop; Pappu was the nick-name of Vishwanath Singh), a real-life location that is more than 100 years old. Dwivedi got Pinjar right. Reaching Mohalla Assi, he takes a wrong turn and almost loses his way.

In Kashi, Kanni Guru (Ravi Kishan), a tout-cum-tourist-guide, meets an American tourist. Catherine, who is looking for paying guest accommodation. Sanskrit scholar, astrologer and palmist, Pandit Dharmnath Pandey (Sunny Deol)’s diktat does not allow foreign tourists to get accommodation in or around Assi, though his colleagues, like Upadhyay (Saurabh Shukla) are open to the idea, being in dire need of some extra income. Kanni, therefore, arranges for her to stay at the place of a boat-man (mallah), Pandey’s neighbour, with the help of Nekram Sharma (Faisal Rashid), the local on-foot barber of Assi. Nekram also helps Catherine in getting a student visa and admission in the University for a diploma course in Hindi, thereby extending her stay. India is marching forward in turbulent times, so are the individuals.

Dharmnath Pandey emerges more powerful with changing times, on account of his strong religious views. He even participates in the demolition of Babri Masjid and gets shot in the leg in the process. But nevertheless, foreigners are finding more accommodations, brandishing the power of the dollar. His wife Savitri (Sakshi Tanwar) is shrewish but loving at heart. She is 15 years younger than him and married the widower on her father’s death-bed, out of compulsion. Pappu ki Dukaan is charged with sloganeering and opposing of changing times. But globalisation is here to stay. One fine morning, Assi wakes up with the news that Barber Nekram Sharma has disappeared with the American Devi, Catherine. For their part, Dharmnath and Savitri have to make a hard decision about means of augmenting their income, which remains hand-to-mouth. A lot will change over the next ten years, as the film enters 1998.

Kashi ka Assi “…made me laugh, tickled me, but also left a twinge of pain somewhere,” says director, screenplay and dialogue writer Chandraprakash Dwivedi, a medical doctor who had barely begun his practice 30 years ago when he was bitten by the media bug and went on to make Chanakya. On closer looks, Mohalla Assi has more pain than laughter, and the tickles come more from the wholesale hurling of cuss words and downright vulgarity. You do empathise with the majority of characters, who are going through turbulent times, and you do feel tickled by the wit and guile of Nekram and Kanni, but in the end, the script lacks focus, becomes incoherent and disjointed.

The tea-stall remains unintegrated and a patch on the main storyline, revolving around Dharmnath and his neighbours. Two nuggets stand out: the exploits and sexploits of Nekram as Barber Baba and the Slate Baba who predicts India’s future by writing in Hindi the names of three fruits on his tool-of-trade slate—orange, apple and berry. Was he predicting the arrival of multinational IT giants with these names? Your guess is as good as mine.

A daily newspaper reported in 2014 that the concept of Chai pe Charcha (discussion over tea), a regular broadcast on radio by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was an idea that was inspired by Pappu ki Dukaan, and was devised by his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the fact that Modi used to sell tea in his youth notwithstanding. The main difference is that while we hear one lecture/talk on the radio, denizens who populate Pappu ki Dukaan number more than a dozen, and all of them are ready with lectures, pronouncements, barbs and commentaries on the state of affairs in Kashi as well as the rest of India. There was a pressing need to churn something sensible out of this gobbledygook, but unless done with extreme caution, it would turn into proselytising. After all, the place was touted as the last vestige of democracy.

Another major decision Dwivedi must have had to take would have related to the obscenities and vituperative content. It would appear from the book and the screenplay that all dialogue in the milieu is dotted with swear words, in particular one word that must feature at least 80n times in the two-hour+ film. Now you either do not pick such material to make a film on, or you excise/reduce the offensive verbosity and X-rated content. Dwivedi does neither. In fact it is a small miracle that India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has allowed so much swearing. Having got attuned to the most repulsive linguistics, you actually begin to sympathise with the maker when, late into the film, some three beeps announce the deletion of a minuscule amount of profanity. 

Sunny Deol could sure do with some hits. Mohalla Assi will not oblige. Amazingly, he is able to pronounce the pure Hindi without any Punjabi accent, but after working with Dwivedi in Chanakya, I know that this is a given. What is unwelcome is the flair with which he gets into the swearing. It’s an unglamorous role, and he must be complimented for taking it on. Sakshi Tanwar is natural. The swearing, however, comes as a rude surprise. Ravi Kishan slips into the role with ease, having done so many Bhojpuri films (Bhojpuri is a dialect of Hindi and is spoken in Kashi, among other states in eastern India). It is Faisal Rashid who is the real find. From a fast-talking barber to Barber Baba, he exhibits real acting competence. Saurabh Shukla and Rajendra Gupta (of the Pappu ki Dukaan gang) are seasoned veterans and prove their worth once again. Other tea-shop patrons include Akhilendra Mishra, Vishwa Badola, Srichand Makhija and Brij Bhushan Sawhney.

Cinematography by Vijay Kumar Arora and editing by Aseem Sinha are undistinguished. Gulzar writes a Gulzarian song, ‘Ganga re…kyon kanni kaatkey jaatee ho’, most probably inspired by the name of one of the lead characters, Kanni, using a pun. In the song, kanni stands for evasion. The song comes right at the end, blending into an item number, too late to make much impact.

In totality, Mohalla Assi bites off much more than can be compiled into one film. It deals with local issues, state issues, national issues and international issues. Moreover, it has too many characters, especially the motley group at the tea-stall, for the audience to go with the flow. And yet we take home a scene like the one in which a pilgrim asks Dharmnath whether he can drink mineral water instead of the water from the Ganges (considering it could be polluted) and the one in which Hindu women buy vegetables from a Muslim vendor, one naming her choices in English while the other speaking the local lingo.

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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