Unlike his serious and mature in tone earlier rural trilogy, Shyam Benegal’s ‘Mandi’ is a film that heavily feed on bawdy satirical comedy with multiple character drama of ensemble bordello set in small town brothel. The film is social satire or lampoon dipped in comic-dramatic tone aiming double standard middle class morality and life and politics of profession of prostitution. Before ‘Mandi’, there’s many films made featuring the tawaif ka kotha as key set-up where the gold hearted prostitute Chandramukhi (Devdas), Pushpa (Amar Prem) or Zohra (Muqaddar Ka Sikandar) serves as an outcast romanticized ideal woman bringing solace to the hero of hindi cinema. There’re other films like ‘Pakeezah’ and ‘Umrao Jaan’ where the key protagonist of the film portrayed romanticized portrait of those by gone era’s sacred courtesans. Benegal’s ‘Mandi’ in many fronts devoid all these conventional tags. It brought to screen the picture of small town courtesan managing to survive his unlikely menagerie of her girls amid changing time, shifting location with compassionate tone. It treats the social politics of female sexuality in bourgeoisie society with irony and humor.
Rukminibai runs a kotha which is part a professional singer-dancer performer, part a whorehouse facing its decline in shifting time. They lost their old patronage of feudal landlords and Nawabs and now have to survive on small town middle class clientele. It’s contemporary in that regard. For Rukmini, Zeenat is a special girl and she keeps her away from ugliness of her profession and site of female sexuality but unlike the parrot in the cage finally she seeks her freedom in an unlikely affair. With her elopement comes another blow of reality when the bordello shows the true colours. On one hand the film is repository of social secrets and crimes of small town and on the other hand it gives us the glimpse of individual look of each prostitutes and character sketches of social reality- a constable who constantly seeking a chance to take advantage of his duty, a photographer who secretly photographs nude prostitutes to craft his pornographic photographs.
The film has most of regular Benegal cast- Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Amrish Puri, Neena Gupta & other ensemble cast. Though media constantly played role of competitive judge between two parellel cinema’s darling actresses, one has to watch the natural flair and chemistry between Shabana & Smita in ‘Arth’ and this one. As courtesan Rukminibai, Shabana Azmi brought to screen one of her best dramatic performance. Needless to say, it has fine support from Smita as her beloved child Zeenat and Naseeruddin Shah as Tundrus, a male servant who keeps loyal to Rukmini till the end.
is used here as comic relief. Bengal’s long
association with Vanraj Bhatia proved so vital here; personally I feel this is
one of the best score Bhatia composed for Benegal. The golden urdu lyrics of
Mir Taqi Mir, the last Mughal- Bahadur shah Zafar & Makhdoom Mohiuddin are
so beautifully rendered of Indian classical melodies by voices of Asha Bhosale
and Preeti Sagar.