Pataakha: Masterful characterisation, masterful acting

Vishal Bhardwaj is known for the skilful drawing of his inherently flawed characters, especially his women – Nimmi in Maqbool, Sussana in 7 Khoon Maaf, Julia in Rangoon and now Champa and Genda Kumari in Pataakha. In Pataakha, the filmmaker does struggle with the premise of the film, but never with his protagonists or even his writing.

Pataakha is about these two sisters Champa (Radhika Madan) and Genda (Sanya Malhotra), popularly known as Badki and Chutki. These names are so popular that even their husbands call them Badki and Chutki. These sisters fight over anything and everything, from beedis to boyfriends to even their ambitions. Bharadwaj takes their conflict to a different level, where both of them personify as India and Pakistan, both having their individual set of ambition and the other hating on it. Badki wants to open a dairy, and Chutki wants to become a teacher. The former despises education, while the latter can’t stand even the smell of milk. Such is their relationship. But moments into the film, you’re made to realise that even though these girls are about to kill each other, they can’t do without as well. The fact that there is love, hidden deep within is no myth, but how it shall come out, is.

Very cleverly, Bharadwaj weaves satire into his narrative. He throws light on the differences between India and Pakistan and also on the atrocities of America. In a brilliantly written scene in the second half of the film, Badki and Chutki discuss with a childhood friend how to separate their husbands (who are brothers) so that they can get to live without each other, when they say, “Jab tak Amrika hai, tab tak na tootego yo ghar,” referring to their old grandmother-in-law. In another scene when the sisters are made to hug each other, they hug in front of a poster of Narendra Modi hugging Donald Trump. That is skill.

But unfortunately, the second half is not half as well edited as the breaks of satire are written. The fighting scenes become repetitive and the scheming a little less imaginative. However, the film keeps going and credit goes to Sanya Malhotra and Radhika Madan.

Both of Bharadwaj’s girls get everything of these characters on point -their dialect, body language, costume. My favourite part were their blackened teeth. But these roles require more than just acting. They demand physical strength to be able to not just make the fights look authentic, but also equal. Was this too a satire? That no matter what the powers of India and Pakistan would be, they belong to one motherland and have always been, will always be, equals? Anyway, not moving away from the point – both Madan and Malhotra give these village girls all they can and emerge victorious. The Rajasthani dialect they talk in doesn’t seem learnt but natural, and so does their fighting. Under Bharadwaj’s umbrella, these girls are real revelations, especially Madan because we already are aware of Malhotra’s talent and she doesn’t let us down.

The supporting cast, Vijay Raaz as the always troubled, bechara bapu, and Sunil Grover as Dipper, are both perfectly cast. One is always worried about these two girls, always at the brisk of murder (of one another) while the other makes sure that these girls keep fighting for mere entertainment purposes.

Bharadwaj is also a genius of music. And very skilfully, in Pataakha, he keeps it limited to the background score, except in a few places. Rekha Bharadwaj’s Balma remains a personal favourite.

All in all, Pataakha does have its weak moments and second half, but the characters of Badki and Chutki and the actors playing them keep the narrative meaty.

If I had to rate the film:

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