Making a boring and simplistic TV movie with Pankaj Tripathi in the lead role requires some effort. But Kaagaz – directed by Satish Kaushik and co-produced by Salman Khan (whose involvement in the project is underlined by a meaningless poetic tale) – proves that the impossible is nothing. It is the kind of dated social-interest story that marks the presence of a politician with a song in which a girl spinning repeats the words “saiyaan” and “bazaar” while playfully dodging the lascivious drunks at a party. The date of a random song revolving around a character who never reappears pales in comparison to a romantic theme sung by Udit Narayan and Alka Yagnik – frankly, without an ounce of irony. I understand the novelty of films that try to resemble the time in which they are set (Kaagaz is set between 1977 and 1992), but here the resemblance is entirely fortuitous. The title (which means “paper”) may have given directors a weak excuse to go out of fashion, but scripts are no longer written on typewriters.
Kaagaz is based on the life of Lal Bihari Mritak, a farmer from Uttar Pradesh who, after being officially declared “dead” by his parents who had stolen his ancestral land, spent 18 years waging a war of attrition against the absurdities of the Indian bureaucracy to prove that he was… was alive. Given Hindi cinema’s longstanding allergy to subtlety, Tripathi’s character is naturally named Bharat. He is not a farmer, but a band chief in a remote village, fortunately for reasons that do not include the inclusion of the pun “mera toh band baj gaya” in the text. When old, gullible Bharat Lal demands proof of identity to obtain a bank loan, he discovers the error in the notes of a supposedly comic scene in which the term “sarkaari” is repeated seven times, in case one does not understand the perfidy of the government’s action. The writing stops before the screening of the track of the pensioner Lage Raho Munnabhai or the entire film Gour Hari Dastaan: The Freedom Law for Bharat – because, of course, it is the 1970’s. (Forget the films that came out later, laptops did not exist at that time).
It’s fashionable to attack great actors in terrible films, but Pankaj Tripathi’s overexposure in the media adds to the film’s boredom. He could have done it in his sleep, and while the story (and main character) look attractive “on paper,” it doesn’t take much to realize that the directors aren’t exactly representatives of new-age Indian cinema. For better or worse, outstanding artists like Tripathi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rajkummar Rao and Sanjay Mishra have a responsibility to the sleeping film-loving souls who have awakened in the last decade. At a time when bills need to be paid and there is no dearth of opportunities in showbiz, talented actors need to keep revisiting the art of self-examination. Producers should approach them as if they were wearing a “Hands On” sticker, rather than making a storm of appointments to make up for lost time.
It’s also easy to wallow in the OTT era, where even a single sigh from you has more method than entire acting careers. Playing a “common man” is therefore a privilege that should only be granted under supervision. If the Mirzapurs, the Gurgaons, the Sacred Games and the Colorful Criminal Tribunals are supposed to undermine the Tripathi series, it is average gaps like these – the sighs between words – that test an infallible legacy. In recent years, I can’t help but think that they are capable of doing something else, much more, a top-notch team that most films fail to exploit. Maybe I’m just greedy and impatient. (Sounds like Professor Gerald Lambeau in Tripathi’s “Will Hunting”) Or maybe the paper is a waste. Save our forests, go digital.