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Kaagaz Review: Pankaj Tripathi Shines In A Film That Never Reaches Its Full Potential

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Kaagaz is now streaming on Zee5 and it’s not my first time wondering how Pankaj Tripathi can manage to make even the blandest of films entertaining to watch. Kaagaz tells the real-life story of the Uttar Pradesh farmer Lal Bihari Mritak who fought for 18 years to prove that he is…alive. The story spans from 1977 to the 1990s, and we get to see how a mere entry in a government register (the register for dead people in Bihari’s case) can change the course of one’s entire life and seal their fate. While the biographical aspect of the plot itself lends to a striking storyline, full with black humour and social commentary, sadly the film never manages to make use of its raw materials. Instead, what it gives us is a rather tedious narrative, where the only thing that holds one’s attention throughout is Tripathi’s magnetic versatility.

Kaagaz is directed by Satish Kaushik, who also dons the hat of the scriptwriter and a fellow actor in the film. The film is produced by Salman Khan and Nishant Kaushik. It also stars Monal Gajjar, Mita Vashisht, Brijendra Kala and Amar Upadhyay. Behind the cinematography, which beautifully captures the essence of rural India, is Arkodeb Mukherjee, while the costume designer Sujata Rajain does a commendable job at reproducing the look of the bygone era.

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The Plot

Kaagaz follows Bharat Lal, a harmless family man and the owner of a wedding band at a small village in Uttar Pradesh. On his wife Rukmini’s (Monal Gajjar) insistence, he decides to expand his band and for the same reason he applies for identity proof to secure a bank loan. It is then that he is informed that he cannot get a loan since he has been declared dead in the government records. Without his knowledge, his relatives signed those papers in order to take away the land that was legally his. Standing against this peculiar problem, Bharat Lal decides to fight his way out of the situation with the help of his wily advocate and guide Sadho Ram Kewat (Satish Kaushik). And from there begins Bharat Lal’s two-decades-long journey, where he fights against government officials, bureaucrats, and ultimately the justice system, to take back what was rightfully his.

The Good Parts

The film’s intention lies in the right places: it lays bare the workings of a political and justice system that reduces people to mere barcodes and numbers. While it tells the story of a particular man living in a specific time period, the themes are the ones that we all can relate to even in contemporary India.

The title Kaagaz itself takes on new meanings apart from just being a document that declares Bharat Lal dead: witnessing the massive protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), an act which can potentially disenfranchise millions of rightful Indian citizens who cannot produce papers to prove their citizenship, the word kaagaz reminds one instantly of Varun Grover’s poem Hum kaagaz nahin dikhayenge (We will not show our papers) which became a rallying cry for the movement. After all, how else can one otherwise interpret Salman Khan’s voice at the end of the film reads out a poem with sentences like “Roz marra ki zaroorat kaagaz// jeene marne ki ijazat kaagazKuchh nahin hai magar hai sab kuchh bhi//Kya ajab cheez hai yeh kaagaz bhi.”

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What Doesn’t Work

The pace of the narrative falters at multiple points, making the film a rather exhausting 107-minutes watch. What is worse is that Kaagaz treats its audience like children who need to be spoonfed every obvious thing. I mean I can already see the goodness of the protagonist and the villainy of the politicians; I don’t need constant reiterations about the same through random villagers and journalists appearing the film. And I definitely understand that we are in Uttar Pradesh and what that location itself connotates; inserting an item song centred around a politician who never reappears was the last thing needed for plot development.

And while I am being pointlessly narrated the same things over and over again through multiple means, as a viewer I get absolutely no insight into the caste or gender aspect of Bharat Lal’s situation. For example, the film focuses on Rukmini’s struggles to keep up with her and her husband’s circumstances, but apart from a very dubious (and fleeting) conversation on women’s marginalisation in Indian society, there is nothing more that we are offered of her character. So while Kagaaz presents an important theme, the film never blooms to its fullest potential. Watch it for Pankaj Tripathi, whose effortless transition from a harmless villager to a ruthless rebel only strengthens the belief that he is one of contemporary Bollywood’s finest actors.

Picture Credit: Zee5

Views expressed are the author’s own.