Amidst the force-fed machismo of mainstream cinema, there’s this off-beat genre of films which is averse to all pretense and presents life just the way it is. There is no adornment to satisfy our visual appeal or a plot that is supposed to rhyme with a song or two. These films strive to portray the most basic of emotions and struggles of people, bringing out the human flaws that are now so obvious to us that we have trained ourselves to overlook them. Films like Kapoor and sons (2016), Waiting (2015), Margarita with a straw (2014) are some of the proud pall-bearers of this unadulterated form of expression.
Nicholas Kharkongor’s Mantra is the story of a dysfunctional family where each member is struggling to find their identity among themselves. The father KK (played by Rajat Kapoor), who was once a successful Businessman with his popular brand of King Chips, now faces bankruptcy due to Globalization which has brought in large multinational rivals having a lot more financial clout than he has. All his suppliers are being poached away and the market is refusing to stock his potato chips. But KK has kept up appearances all his life. He looks at himself in the mirror every morning and forces a smile as if everything were fine. In one of the conversations with his younger son, he tells him that he loves sushi. Not because he had always liked the taste, but due to the fact that he had learnt to appreciate the nuances of the dish. Through this one instance, he establishes his philosophy that everything that we love in life is an acquired taste. This rigid characteristic of his personality is reflected in his marriage as well where he has alienated his wife Minna (played by Lushin Dubey) by being a person who always does the “right thing” and cares more about what others would think of his actions. There is no spontaneity left in their marriage any more. He is a man in his own world, feigning perfection. His older son Viraj (played by Shiv Pandit), who has established a successful Business of his own, feels demoralised by his father’s constant admonishments. KK’s expectation that his son would look after his Business someday, makes his son’s ventures a constant topic of disagreement. Viraj finds it unfair that his father doesn’t appreciate the hard-work he has been putting into his projects and becomes even more resolved to make it on his own. Pia (played by Kalki Koechlin), the daughter in the family, is an upcoming chef and dreams of a life of freedom. She feels suffocated living in her parents’ home and puts up with their possessiveness. Lastly, the youngest in the family, Vir is a lanky and sullen 16-year old who is largely neglected and quietly struggles with his sexuality, trying to find “love” in private online chat-rooms.
Despite having such a range of emotions and anguish between the characters, Mantra struggles to keep up a coherent flow. There are times when a character is made to go through a seemingly important event in their life but the repercussion of the same is left hanging and incomplete. In one of the scenes Pia goes out with a stranger she meets at a bar and finds herself in a perilous situation when he forces himself on her. She somehow escapes from him and finds help from another stranger (played by Adil Hussain). I, as an audience, expect that such a traumatic experience would affect her deeply and change her somehow but this particular turn of the story doesn’t contribute anything to the character’s progression except that she finds a fatherly affection towards this stranger who had been kind to her. One would think she might become averse to the freedom that she had always wanted but she remains resolute and eventually moves out. All these various character arcs, sometimes, act more as a distraction than a catalyst. Koechlin, who has given some powerful performances in the past is largely left under-utilized.
In this jumble of situations, KK’s character is perhaps the most well-written and well-developed arc throughout the story. From being a man with a false sense of self-righteousness, he starts to accept this new life of uncertainty and imminent change. He lets go of his inhibitions and proudly so. While smoking a doobie, unlikely to his character, he also enjoys the very same music for which he had rebuked his younger son once. This “newly acquired taste” of his is precisely quipped through a dialogue spoken by Minna that Life would always be filled with regrets but it’s on us to make sure that we end up with the right regrets. Rajat Kapoor, who played a similar role in Kapoor and Sons, is not at his best but the style of the character aligns with his personality. He is a forlorn man fighting to find balance between his passions and his family. In his effort to keep them apart, he has failed as a father. And now, the only thing for which he had made those sacrifices is slipping out of his hands. This angst, Kapur, plays in a measured manner.
Mantra attempts to capture a lot in a limited amount of time and falls short of conveying its message. If only, we could have an extended version of this story through a drama series, it would have been a breath of fresh air in this stinking deluge of soap operas that abound our television sets. Well, Arrested Development is what comes to mind. Such nuanced treatment could do well to revive the kind of content we are forced to watch. Films or series like Mantra can bring back the classic drama that we had in the 90s like Shanti which were progressive and infused the socio-economic backdrop with tumultuous family situations.
Our mantra for Nick : Get onto Youtube or Amazon Prime or Hotstar and give us a web-series drama. This would not only allow you to give more depth to your characters but would also give you sufficient time to allow a character to grow through the story. Good luck !
gobblpoint: The film tries to portray a dysfunctional family in its honesty but could not rise unto the expectations with such talented actors in its crew. However, its a genuine attempt toward this genre of real-world cinema.
Disclaimer: The images used in this post are the sole property of the makers of this family and are not owned by us in any form whatsoever.