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Kaanchli—Life in a Slough, Review: Slough and unsteady loses the race

Probably the only thing going for Kaanchli is the fact that it is based on a Vijaydan ‘Bijji’ Detha story. Detha inspired the films Duvidha (directed by Mani Kaul), which was remade as Paheli (Amol Palekar), Charandas Chor (Habeeb Tanveer), Lajwanti (Pushpendra Singh) and Parinati (Prakash Jha). The much decorated author died in 2013, after writing some 800 short stories, all in Rajasthani, often translated into Hindi. The element of a snake shedding its skin symbolically transposed to a married woman letting extra-marital carnal desire get the better of her does come through, but little else does.

Post independence (1947), somewhere in Rajasthan, a local ‘ruler’ called Dushyant finds his coffers empty and has to make do with a rickety old car and a two-member retinue, whose salary he can barely afford. But he still lives in the world of yore and is treated by his subjects as ‘Annadata’ (the food-giver). Exploiting this servile mentality and goodwill, he sleeps with the village women, irrespective of whether they are married or not. They, for their part, give in easily, some even considering it a privilege being chosen for this honour. His man Friday is Bhoja, a clever serf who wields clout derived from his master. Into this milieu arrives Kajri, married to Kishnu. She is a stunner, and word about her abundant beauty soon reaches Annadata, who begins to fantasise about bedding her. As expected, he entrusts Bhoja with the task of getting her round.

Sworn to fidelity, Kajri has a tough time keeping the Annadata-Bhoja duo at bay. Every time they make an advance, Kajri stalls them under one pretext or other. Bhoja offers Kishnu a post in the ‘palace’, which gladdens his heart. With the seduction by Annadata going nowhere, Bhoja begins to drool over Kajri himself. Kajri lures him into a trap, time and again, but the guileful Bhoja escapes unscathed, every time. At one point, she discovers that Kishnu might not defend her with all his might, and she begins to question hr own faithfulness. A pregnant Kajri discovers a snake-skin, considered a major good omen, and the symbolism is not lost on her.

Though based on Detha’s story, the film has been scripted by director Dedipya Joshii (Saankal, Chal Jaa Bapu), who has been nursing the project since 2008, and Kailash Detha (Vijaydan’s son, Kailash Kabeer?). The writers have made some strange choices. Bhoja speaks Hindi and pidgin English, whereas all the others speak Rajasthani. Bhoja has a pet parrot, which is never shown in full light or close-up, and whose voice has been dubbed by Joshii himself. Bhoja has long conversations with this parrot, which are probably meant to be symbolic, as talking with an alter ego, not real, like many other contents of the film. The English dose is meant to provide comic effect. Savour this, “Cheating every time, not good, not good.” Annadata comes across as a half-cooked character, appearing and disappearing at regular, long intervals, as does Kishnu’s mother.

Bhoja falling for the same/similar ploy three/four times is illogical, given his shrewdness and cunning, although his ability to wriggle out unscathed is amply showcased. Since Kaanchli is certified for exhibition to adults only, and excisions ordered, it is likely that this tale of a woman’s sexual liberation fell foul of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and vital scenes had to be deleted. A distinctly incomplete feeling is inescapable as you sit through the 102 minutes of running time. Though the film is a repository of allegory, the churning scene, both literal and projected, is a piece of deft direction. Nudity could have pulled in the audience, had it not come so late in the proceedings and had it not been shot in rain and poor light. Question is, would the CBFC have allowed it then?

With a largely unknown cast, Sanjai Mishra becomes a kind of star. He sports the right look and diction, but the English dos not work, neither does the Hindi. Yet, he sails through with relative ease. Shikha Malhotra (Actor | Singer | Dancer |Anchor | Painter | Writer | Cook | Daughter & Proudly Registered Nurse) has limited acting ability, compensated in part by a buxom figure, the cleavage being on accentuated display throughout, and which is revealed to its fullest as the end approaches. Present at the press preview screening, she seemed slimmer than her naked screen image, giving rise to speculation that a body double might have been used. Lalit Parimoo almost looks the part, till he is floored by one blow from Kajri. Royals of Indian states, howsoever small, used to be much stronger. Nareshpal Singh Chouhan, playing Kishnu, imparts the right amount of ambivalence to his role, which shows the part in unflattering light.

Songs could have raised the bar, but neither the title track (sung by Swaroop Khan and music by Shivang Upadhyay & Nishant Kamal Vyas), nor ‘Titlee kee tarah’ (sung by Nishant Kamal Vyas and music by Shivang Upadhyay and Nishant Kamal Vyas), nor ‘Janam ke naate’ (sung by Pratibha Singh Baghel and music by Shivang Upadhyay & Nishant Kamal Vyas) have it in them to echo beyond the screen. Camerawork by Joginder Singh Panda leaves much to be desired and Aseem Sinha does not live up to his own reputation as editor. For the umpteenth time, it is Vijay Raaz who does the narration. Perhaps it is time for him to call his acting career quits and devote all his attention to voice-overs and narrations. Wonder what prompted singer-music director-producer Anup Jalota to lend his name to the project as ‘presenter’.

Kaanchli–Life in a Slough, is about living in a skin, but fails to get under the skin of the tale, preferring to end the narrative on a dash of skin show. With many unsteady moments, this slow film is most likely to lose the box office race. Undeniably, the germ of an idea by Detha had the makings of an off-beat entertainer. In its present shape and form, though, it is not likely to garner many patrons.

Rating: * ½