KAAGAZ (2021)

Pankaj Tripathi as Bharat Lal in a still from Kaagaz
  • Platform: Zee5
  • Release Date: 07/01/2021
  • Cast: Pankaj Tripathi, Monal Gajjar, Satish Kaushik, Mita Vashisht
  • Director: Satish Kaushik

A bizarre true story that feels too incredible to be true

Bharat Lal (Pankaj Tripathi) ran his own orchestra business and was doing quite well for himself. In order to expand his business, he sets out to apply for a loan from the nearby bank. He learns that he can only get a loan if he keeps certain collateral with the bank. He sets out to his ancestral village to lay claim to his piece of land that his father had left him. To his utter dismay, he learns that his uncle and his family had him declared dead in congruence with the local government official and usurped his entire landholding that was less than an acre. Bharat is pained, confused, and outraged at this grave injustice and sets out to reinstate himself as a living being in government documents. What he doesn’t realize is that it would take away nearly two decades of his life and would make him understand the true meaning of life. His predicament would also give him an opportunity to help others who are facing a similar ordeal but are too innocent and powerless to stand up for themselves.

Kaagaz follows the true story of Lal Bihari from UP. There is so much drama in the tale that all that the director, Satish Kaushik had to do was to recreate the time and era and let the superlative Pankaj Tripathi interpret and recreate the protagonist in the best possible manner for the audiences to enjoy and relate with. The best kinds of protagonists in a film are the ones who drive the story forward. Bharat Lal is one such protagonist. Once the basic premise is set, the rest of the film only documents Bharat’s various endeavors to have himself declared alive and crawl out of the ditch that his family has willfully put him in.

He starts off small and tries to convince the Panchayat chief to write him a document stating that he was alive, he then goes ahead and starts writing letters to various higher officials and ultimately ends up writing letters to the Prime Minister who replies and assures him that he will receive all the help that the government machinery can offer someone like him. However, nothing happens. He then takes the legal route and engages a lawyer, Sadho Ram (Satish Kaushik) to do his bidding in the court of law. Years pass and again nothing happens. Bharat now decides to get aggressive and blocks the path of the passing MLA, Ashrafi Devi (Mita Vashisht) who is campaigning for an upcoming election, demanding justice. He is papped by a reporter who then becomes his voice and earns him national and international fame. He soon lands a meeting with the MLA and does his pleading with her. He kidnaps his brother’s kid to get arrested and have his name in a government document, insults a judge so that he could be held in contempt, adds the word “Mritak” (dead) to his name to make a point, and even forms a political party and contests an election against former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi. All his efforts prove futile and with every subsequent failure, Bharat Lal loses a vital part of existence and exhausts a portion of his minuscule resources. Strangely, these losses only strengthen his resolve and make him fight harder than before every time. However, a time comes when his wife gets tired of his battle, and their once strong and beautiful bond comes close to snapping.

Satish Kaushik in a still from Kaagaz

Pankaj Tripathi has emerged as one of the biggest names of the small screen through 2020 and he proves once again why he is the first choice of many directors when they are looking to create an endearing character. Tripathi brings out the insecurities of Bharat Lal through his rendering of the character. One look at him and one can easily comprehend the wear and tear that the predicament that he has been through has left on him. While his scenes with Monal Gajjar (playing his wife Rukmini) are exceptionally warm and beautiful, his performance truly comes into its own in the scenes that pit him against the system and its various representatives. A few sequences could have been better written like one elaborate montage that shows Bharat Lal’s reaction to his predicament after he returns to his village learning about his predicament. This sequence felt unnecessary and somewhat farcical. Other than this, the screenplay and the set pieces remain firmly rooted in realism and Pankaj Tripathi does his best to keep us transfixed to his character and our attention away from any flaws or hiccups.

Satish Shah in a brief cameo does a commendable job apart from helming the film from the director’s chair. Monal Gajjar is noticeable as Bharat Lal’s wife. She exudes a lot of charm and drama in certain scenes like the one in which she is shown going to the government to ask for “widow pension”. What happens in that sequence was not only wonderfully envisioned but was equally well executed with panache and conviction by Monal.

My only issue with the film was in the fact that after a while, the film starts feeling redundant. Bharat Lal is shown doing things to get back his life and even before he does a certain thing we know how it will turn out as we have experienced something similar only a few minutes back. Even at 1 hour and 49 minutes, the film feels dragged. The second half of the film suffers from a lack of ingenuity and the way the film culminates might be in sync with the real story but was as rewarding cinematically as it should have been. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that had Pankaj Tripathi not been as charming and entertaining as he is here, Kaagaz might have ended up being a much lesser film.

Monal Gajjar in a still from Kaagaz

Having said all that, Kaagaz is still a worthy watch for its unique content, efficient treatment and great performances from the ensemble cast. It is refreshing to take a break from the hyper-edited and snazzy fares that we come across these days and invest time in a film that is not only earthen in its feel but is also a slow burn that allows the audiences to relate with its protagonist and feel his many emotions. The fans of Pankaj Tripathi will have one more performance of him to cherish and put him on an even higher pedestal than they have before.

Rating: 3/5 (3 out of 5 Stars)

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