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Mohalla Assi review: As poor as the state of the Ganga

Release Date: 16 Nov 2018 / Rated: A / 02hr 30min

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Keyur Seta

The Sunny Deol-starrer offers a glimpse into Varanasi but lags behind in storytelling.

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi’s famous initiative ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ was inspired by the real practice of having passionate political discussions over a cup of tea at the tea shops in Benares aka Varanasi aka Kashi.

These conversations form a good part of director Chandraprakash Dviwedi’s Mohalla Assi. The film does not shy away from realism and shows characters who are fans of real political parties like the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), the Congress and the Left parties. Names of real politicians too find mention. In fact, in one scene, a character is seen fluttering the BJP flag.

One might believe that such bold reality strengthens a film. While this may be true, what a film requires more than stark realism is a soul.

Mohalla Assi is based on Kashinath Singh’s novel Kashi Ka Assi. The story revolves around Dharmnath Pandey (Sunny Deol), who stays with his wife (Sakshi Tanwar) and two daughters in Varanasi. He is a priest who sits by the banks of the Ganga and teaches Sanskrit in a school. He is a staunch ‘upper-caste’ Hindu, a man considered the final authority in matters relating to religion.

Pandey is hurt by the rampant commercialization of Varanasi. He is particularly against the residents of Assi ghat keeping foreigners as paying guests in their homes. Eating non-vegetarian food is also a strict no-no in his locality. His rules irk the fellow pandits of Assi ghat, especially Upadhyay (Saurabh Shukla). On the other hand, despite the strict rules, Kanni (Ravi Kishan) manages to earn well by being a guide cum estate agent.

Mohalla Assi gives the viewer a good tour of the city of Varanasi, considered one of the oldest towns and holiest places in India. Along with a tour of the banks of the Ganga and the temples there, the film delves into the mindsets and ideologies of its residents. For example, casteism is as natural here as the flow of the river.

Unfortunately, the film remains nothing more than a glimpse into the lives of the people of Benares. While the glimpse is interesting, the aim of a feature film usually is to tell a story and this is where Mohalla Assi falters. Even the heated political discussions over cups of tea feel redundant after a while.

The film suffers from weak writing. The main subject here is Pandey being torn between traditionalism and modernism. But the screenplay tries to bring in too many individuals and situations without proper links or a flow. Some scenes start and end in a matter of seconds. Before the scene has registered in your mind, it’s gone.

The plot takes an interesting turn when the Ram temple movement of the early 1990s is introduced. However, like a number of other situations, this topic, too, is hardly explored.

In order to make the conversations seem realistic and Varanasi-like, the writer has peppered the dialogues liberally with cuss words. This just reduces their impact and importance. Worse, some of the actors are clearly uncomfortable uttering these words.

Mohalla Assi does not score highly on technical points either. The setting of the film in Benares offered immense scope for making it a visual delight, but that isn’t quite seen in the camerawork.

The performances are fine except for the lead actor. Sunny Deol is simply not believable as a staunch ‘upper-caste’ priest from Benares, though he tries hard.

What makes things worse for him is that the other artistes like Tanwar, Ravi Kishan, Shukla and Seema Azmi give convincing performances, getting into the skin of their respective characters. Other seasoned actors like Rajendra Gupta, Mukesh Tiwari and Dayashankar Pandey are also good even when their characters don’t have much importance in the film.

Mohalla Assi, a film that was in the cans for close to a decade, was leaked online three years ago. Its runtime then was 150 minutes. The film got into serious trouble with the Central Board of Film Certification, popularly known as the censor board. Its length for theatrical release has been reduced drastically to 120 minutes. Maybe this is also why the final product is not up to the mark.


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