Kaagaz (2021) Review!!

Synopsis – A satirical comedy about a common man and the struggle he goes through to prove his existence after being declared dead by the government records.

My Take – For decades the way injustices that have been meted out by the government especially towards the poor and the non-influential has been an endless topic of debate and dissection for almost everyone, other than the ones who find themselves in the higher side of the hierarchy. While the supposed much needed change might never come, it hasn’t stopped Indian filmmakers from constantly dolling out films that highlight such endless flaws of a corrupt government.

However, what sets this latest ZEE5 release, which has been written and directed by Satish Kaushik and produced by Salman Khan, apart from the mix is its rather unique true story of Lal Bihari, a UP based farmer, who struggled for 19 years to prove that he is alive after being declared dead in government records.

A long struggle which saw him become the leader of other people facing similar fate at the hands of corrupt and incompetent system, and also saw him hilariously contest the 1989 elections against Rajiv Gandhi, the 6th Prime Minister of India, from his association, Mritak Sangh, all in a bid to prove that he was alive and well.

Unfortunately, while the story sounds like a classic drama with ample opportunity for black humor, it falls flat at the execution level, as the script is outdated, choppy and disjointed, lacking an obvious rhythm. Though it begins with a good tempo, it is unable to hold on to the pace after the initial burst of energy, and relies a tad too heavily on his central character’s shoulders.

There is so much scope for the characters and comedy both here, but writer-director Satish Kaushik just squanders these opportunities, making it all feel quite underwhelming in the end. Nevertheless, the film is worth a one-time watch mainly as it makes for an excellent showcase for the impeccable screen presence and acting talent of Pankaj Tripathi.

Beginning in 1975, the story follows Bharat Lal (Pankaj Tripathi), an Azamgarh-based bandmaster, who is content with his tiny shop and his small family, that consists of his wife, Rukmini (Monal Gajjar), and his young son. However, on Rukmini’s insistence, Bharat agrees to get a loan from a local bank to further expand his growing business. But when he decides to get the ownership papers of his land in his ancestral village as a mortgage for the loan, Bharat finds out that he has been declared dead as per official records due to a conspiracy carried out by his conniving relatives in a bid to steal his assets.

While the whole village mocks at his status, Bharat Lal struggles to prove himself alive, sometimes taking extreme measures, all just to get his name in any legal document. Seeking help from Sadhuram (Satish Kaushik), a conniving lawyer, Sonia (Neha Chauhan), a reporter, and Asarfi Devi (Mita Vashisht), an opportunistic politician, Bharat Lal begins a 19 year long journey to expose the glaring truth about the agony of people who have been declared dead on paper despite being alive.

There is no denying of the fact the film has a lot of heart, and writer-director Satish Kaushik backs the entire story with the authenticity it demands. Here, director Kaushik attempts to put the point across that most underprivileged people are treated as mere numbers by the politicians, and the government apathy for which it doesn’t really matter if a poor man is “dead or alive” on paper or otherwise until it is election time.

And while the narrative milks its potential for black humor to the last drop, it suffers from inconsistent writing and lacks in execution. Though he undoubtedly remains a remarkable character actor, as a storyteller director Satish Kaushik has been quite inconsistent despite decades of experience. Here too, after confidently building up a narrative in the first thirty minutes, he fails to sustain the momentum throughout the film.

Though as a viewer I never struggled to hold attention, I also never found myself indulging deeply considering how relevant this film is. The direction and editing also seem to lack a certain rhythm and the transitions between shots and scenes look incomplete, almost random and too sudden, further highlighting the film’s lazy editing, outdated direction and the plot’s monotonous nature.

Information is relayed to the viewers in the lazy and cliché style of endless conversation and discussion on screen and for a true story with so much activity, there is barely any in the script. The exchanges between people are preachy and on the nose, which made me cringe a little.

A greater control over the script could have turned this one into something more authentic. It goes beyond the realm of parody, and a tighter leash on characterizations and scene conceptualizations could have gone a long way in turning the film into a more worthwhile watch.

However, the film scrupulously redeems itself due to Pankaj Tripathi, who continues to be a commendable performer when it comes to delivering humor with a straight face. Though he is rather overexposed on the digital arena, here, Tripathi owns the show with his acting finesse and the camera dotingly follows him around. Satish Kaushik scores much higher in the acting department, and brings in yet another easy performance.

Monal Gajjar as Bharat’s rustic spouse lends a good support and possesses enough charm just in her smile to lit-up even the dullest of scenes. However, in other roles, Mita Vashisht, Amar Upadhyay, Brijendra Kala and Neha Chauhan, don’t get much to do. Sandeepa Dhar looks drop dead gorgeous in the song ‘Lallam Laal’, but acts as an unnecessary hurdle in the narrative. On the whole, ‘Kaagaz’ is an inspiring tale let down by its dated writing yet scrupulously redeemed by Pankaj Tripathi‘s exceptional performance.

Directed – Satish Kaushik

Starring – Pankaj Tripathi, Satish Kaushik, Monal Gajjar

Rated – NA

Run Time – 109 minutes

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