From smiling chutzpah to high power kinetic outbursts, Shabana Azmi makes the formidable character of Rukmini Bai come alive in Shyam Benegal’s Mandi. Bubla Basu explores Shabana Azmi’s unbeatable oomph in this acclaimed film.
Inspired by Ghulam Abbas’ short story Anandi (1948) and Hollywood director Colin Higgins’ The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (Marketplace), 1983, masquerades as a lively, rambunctious affair while the grim themes of independence and survival run beneath. A sharp script by Shama Zaidi and Pt. Satyadev Dubey artfully blend gritty realities with sardonic humour and dialogues are unapologetically risqué, befitting the vibrant characters who speak them. Art Director Nitish Roy’s imaginatively designed sets, Ashok Mehta’s unique cinematography and the noteworthy music of Vanraj Bhatia make for the look and feel of a small town brothel in Andhra Pradesh at the end of the 19th century. This den of vice and salacious joy becomes a target as landlords, businessmen, social workers and politicians, all with axes to grind, embroil themselves in the complex business of gentrification.
In the kotha, a flourishing sisterhood (played by top notch actors Neena Gupta, Soni Razdan, and Anita Kanwar) is watched over as much as watched by the tubby, undersized constable (Harish Patel) who is married to one of the inmates (Ila Arun). Zeenat (Smita Patil), the illegitimate daughter of a local businessman Agarwal (Saeed Jaffrey) is the endearing touch-me-not pet of the premises. At everyone’s bidding is the knockabout half-wit Tungruz (a fascinatingly agile Naseeruddin Shah) while Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur, Gita Siddharth and Annu Kapoor sparklingly play supporting characters in this micro system.
The real show stopper though, is a Shabana Azmi as never seen before. Beaming as she basks in the reflected glory of her “progeny” who sing and dance for their clients, she plays against type and is not the slim, hapless young woman who wins her doe eyed day. In Mandi, Azmi is the buxom Rukmini Bai – a hair crimped, grandiloquent matriarch of gaudy garb and gimlet stare. She thinks nothing of actually twisting the peeping constable’s ear and even less of figuratively twisting Agarwal’s arm.
In wildly funny later scenes, she hauls male intruders of varying shapes and sizes out from under Zeenat’s bed. Photographer, constable and business man’s son, all of whom had sought Zeenat’s attention are yanked out by any visible part of their anatomy that Rukmini Bai can sink her bejewelled claws into. Azmi’s expression of appalled, gasping horror is priceless as each offender emerges, stutters feeble excuses and scuttles off.
It is the sheer genius of Benegal and his scriptwriters that in spite of such hilarity, Rukmini Bai is not reduced to a caricature and Azmi is simply terrific as she struts her stuff.
Dawn shows Rukmini Bai at prayer. Quite the morning songbird, she hums a tad wistfully of the world gone awry. She sanctifies her hall with incense, pauses at one of the many chamber mirrors to satisfy her vanity and tries to teach a religious Ram Ram to her defiantly abusive parrot. After some real monkey business which leads her a fine dance, (a small primate runs amok in the premises), Rukmini Bai turns her attention to the first deal of the day. A sleazy Shrikanth (MK Raina) wishes to offload his unsuspecting deaf-mute bride Phoolmani (Sreela Majumdar) at the brothel for a price. When Shrikanth balks at the money Rukmini Bai slaps into his palm, she swipes the notes back. Her terms are the only terms and Shrikanth hastily accepts.
Facing her next visitors, the present landlord and the prospective buyer of her premises, Rukmini Bai begins to craft a tale of misery, niftily multi tasking through her charade. She shames a fumbling Tungruz, pacifies a belligerent inmate demanding dance lessons on time and issues orders to control a frantic Phoolmani who darts about the grounds trying to escape.
Though she has a tight fit in seats too small for her and an occasionally troublesome knee makes her grimace, once on her feet, Rukmini Bai functions with high power kinetic. Whether raging through the courtyard or storming the stairs, whether standing with arms akimbo, or even unseen, Rukmini Bai’s lung bursting orders resound through her fiefdom.
Later, Benegal’s message of women fighting for survival comes through Rukmini Bai’s aggressive breast beating insistence. It is women like herself and her girls, she rages, who serve society. It is they who bring pleasure and peace to disconsolate men at the end of the day. She and her girls come from a tradition of courtesans and performing artistes, no less, she reminds an audience both on and off screen. Between attention-seeking wails, she reiterates that all men are cheats, that she herself had once been betrayed but she had learnt never to complain. Such is the weight she carries in her insincere heaving bosom.
The formidable Rukmini Bai is not only about sound and fury. She can craft quieter moments cannily to her advantage. Feigning a fever, she takes to bed and sobs to businessman Agarwal that she is to be evicted from her home. Agarwal weeps with her. She has kept his darkest secret for years after all, he sniffles ruefully, and now there is nothing he can offer her but money. Seconds later, twenty five thousand rupees richer, a triumphant and tearless Rukmini Bai confronts her new landlord, Gupta, announcing she is ready to take matters of forced displacement up to the Supreme Court. With Gupta offering small wads of money and Rukmini Bai upping her game at each bundle of notes she sees, the script gives both players enough wile to make this one of the most memorable scenes of Mandi.
The best scene is surely the one in which portly bourgeois ladies from the women’s welfare centre (Nari Niketan) descend on Rukmini Bai for having sheltered Phoolmani. With smiling chutzpah, Rukmini Bai offers a cheque for their cause and in honeyed tones delivers the stinging barbs of the film’s brilliant script..An embarrassing situation makes the conscience keepers hurry off less huffily than they came in and with utter contempt Rukmini Bai flings back the pallu she had demurely worn over her head. Under her breath she derides the audacity of anyone who dares to spar with her.
With magnificent throughline action, Shabana Azmi gives Rukmini Bai her unbeatable oomph.
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