In many ways, Nicholas Kharkongor’s debut feature Mantra resembles Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do. Both reside in a world of first-world crisis of a dysfunctional family where members have dispersed from each other, and business deals equate emotional investments.
While Akhtar never let the lens go out of the emotional coherence of her story, bringing out fluid performances from the starry ensemble with wit and tears, Kharkongor remains unmoved by the plight of his characters, in turn, turning us away from feeling even a little for their follies.
Set in 2004, when India was celebrating its supposed emergence in the global economy with the ‘India Shining’ campaign, Mantra sets out to tell the story of Kapoor family, and through it the aftermath of economic reforms that was initiated in 1991. If Kapil Kapoor’s (Rajat Kapoor) company, ‘King Chips’, is going bankrupt, his failing battle is amplified in his family members, drifting away from the idea of being a single unit. His elder son Viraj (Shiv Pandit) is busy in his own restaurant business, his daughter Piya (Kalki Koechlin) wants to move out and be independent, and his younger son Vir (Rohan Joshi) is stuck in the web of chat rooms. And there is his wife Meenakshi (Lushin Dubey), feeding off cigarettes in her loneliness.
On the surface, the tale of the Kapoors and the Indian system is ambitious in its undertaking, but the narrative remains just there, on the surface, as an outcast. The running thread of Kapoor’s ‘King Chips’ being devoured by ‘Kipper’ is a clear hat tip to the multinational Frito-Lay acquiring ‘Uncle Chipps’ in 2000. If the present Indianisation of brands wears out Mantra’s multinational concerns, the landscape of a sprawling democracy cuddling development hardly gets addressed beyond a naive name-calling. The preceding era which slid past us is barely evoked with sufficient details, barring a TV set, old Nokia handsets, and talk of the past regime, something which Sharat Katariya managed wonderfully in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, conjuring a sense of nostalgia in sights and sounds.
Again, unlike Akhtar’s film that gave equal weightage to each member of the dysfunctional family, Mantra clearly circles around the patriarch who straddles to make sense of the inevitability of his life.
Rajat Kapoor shows he has the able shoulders to carry us through the autumn of the patriarch, but Kharkongor’s script fails him, refusing to go into the labyrinth of inner turmoil, and trying awakening.
The dialogues are strangely mannered, written in a fashion to reveal grammatical articulation not vocalisation of feelings, stripping the characters of any life. As a result, the crisis, the confrontations, and the tears become counterfeit, and we never care to dispense even a single coin out of our bank of empathy.
Lastly, if you don’t have the budget, don’t take on the richie rich. It shows.
(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise; he tweets @RanjibMazumder)