Mumbai, 14 Mar 2019 18:27 IST
Updated: 16 Mar 2019 22:50 IST
Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra builds an engaging story and his child artistes, led by Om Kanojiya, carry the film on their little shoulders.
Four slum kids perched atop a Mumbai pipeline. One of them says, 'Chal, chand tak apni awaaz pahunchate hain [Let’s make our voice travel all the way to the moon].'
Economically and socially deprived one may be, but perseverance can get a plea answered. All that little Kanhu (Om Kanojiya) wants is a toilet for his mother, Sargam (Anjali Patil). So he pens a letter to the prime minister of India and sets off to Delhi with his mates Nirala (Prasad) and Ringtone (Adarsh Bharti) to deliver it personally.
Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Mere Pyare Prime Minister dwells on the familiar issue of open defecation. While arthouse cinema can highlight the issue, popular cinema can spread awareness and create greater impact. But with a star like Akshay Kumar having taken up the issue in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017), how does Mere Pyare Prime Minister do it differently?
From the onset, the Mehra film is on the backfoot as it could so easily be labelled old wine in a new bottle. Mehra and Hussain Dalal have fine-tuned Manoj Mairta’s draft to tell a compelling human interest story.
Unlike director Shree Narayan Singh’s Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, whose protagonists were Brahmins from Uttar Pradesh, Mehra sets his film in a Mumbai slum. The talent and indefatigable spirit of child artistes Om Kanojia, Adarsh Bharti, Prasad and Syna Anand shine through. These children hit you like dynamite on the screen.
Om Kanojiya's innocent eyes and pleasant smile are enough to warm hearts. He shows supreme confidence. The street-smart Kanojiya backs it up with a certain swag, dare and wit. He innocently tells his mother he would marry her when he grows up.
Kanojiya is not alone, for it is the Gandhi Nagar (Asalpha near Ghatkopar in Mumbai) ‘chillar party’ that drives the film. Adarsh Bharti and Prasad have unique character names — Ringtone and Nirala — and they match Kanojiya with equally impressive performances.
Syna Anand, who plays the neighbourhood girl Mangla, is a delight to watch. Mangla, Ringtone and Kanhu’s conversation with the lousy Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation officials is hilarious. Kudos to casting director Mukesh Chhabra for unearthing these little gems.
In a bid to raise money to build a toilet, the children beg on the streets. Sadly for them, their hard-earned money is confiscated by the cops. The role of the police, their attitude to towards slum dwellers, is seriously questionable.
Anjali Patil has made a name playing rural characters in films like Chakravyuh (2012) and Newton (2017). However, she is a little below par in Mere Pyare Prime Minister. She is flat in the first half, but makes amends later. The Sargam-Kanhu banter, especially dancing to 'Aati Kya Khandala' from Ghulam (1998), is a bit too filmi. While Patil has often impressed audiences with humble characters, Sargam won’t feature high on her best list.
Niteesh Wadhwa is competent as Pappu Pandey, the vendor and employer of Kanhu. He has affection for Sargam. Through Pappu, Mehra opens our eyes to the sad reality of book vendors in the digital age. Pappu used to run his father’s bookstore in Uttar Pradesh, but the dying culture of reading and growing influence of digital gadgets has hit book vendors hard.
Seasoned actors Makarand Deshpande and Atul Kulkarni as well as Rasika Anil Agashe chip in with fine acts.
Mehra’s film has a foreigner Eva Patten (Sonia Albizuri), but the social worker genuinely seeks the welfare of the slum dwellers. She assigns Kanhu to sell condoms without the boy knowing what purpose they serve.
The first half is a bit flaky with the crux of the story coming through a little late. It’s not just the lack of toilets for millions. The film also points to the dangers that slum kids face when they use pipelines as dumping grounds, as they also run the risk of falling into the gutters below.
The film's release a month before the general election gives a boost to prime minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, but Mehra’s film is not PR material for Modi. Mehra simply sticks to his story. However, Mehra using tracks from his earlier film Delhi-6 (2009) in the backdrop does not add any value to the film.
Some scenes grip your imagination. In one, Kanhu sits atop a pipeline, counting the floors of the high-rises in the distance. If each flat is a 2 BHK with two toilets each, one building has hundreds of toilets while his slum has tens of thousands of people and not a single toilet.
These scenes show us the gulf between the privileged and the underprivileged. Wealth is important, but millions like Sargam and Kanhu are simply pleading for a basic right. Will they be heard?
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