Copaganda movies (films that are police propaganda and attempt to show law enforcement agencies in a positive light) have been a controversial subject. The reason is pretty simple. In reel life, they are the heroes who see the world in black and white and go to any lengths to get justice. In real life, they are the villains whose definition of black and white is defined by the political party giving them the instructions, thereby leading to loads of injustice, which then has to be made to look like justice. The line between real and fictional was blurred when cops in movies were turned into superheroes, and cops in real life started to mimic their behavior instead of actually doing their job. That said, with Vikram Vedha, Gurudev Hoysala, and Dahaad, there seems to be a concerted effort to critique this profession and highlight all the crimes they commit while wearing the prestigious “khaki.” Kathal: A Jackfruit Mystery may not be as serious as the aforementioned films, but through its lighthearted nature, the movie ends up talking about a lot of issues that are currently plaguing India.
As far as I can deduce, Kathal is set in the fictional town of Moba in Uttar Pradesh. The story opens with Mahima Basor leading her team (Saurabh Dwivedi, Kunti Parihar, Constable Mishra, and Constable Pahad Singh) on a chase to catch a wanted criminal called Veer Singh (popularly known as Veeru). But when it comes to giving her credit for the arrest, DSP Sharma and S.P. Angrez Singh Randhawa hog the limelight and they don’t even address the fact that Mahima was an integral part of the mission. To rub salt in the proverbial wound, when politician Munnalal Pateria’s Uncle Hong jackfruits (the titular “kathal”) go missing, Randhawa orders Mahima to look into this case since it isn’t worth his time. Mahima initially states the obvious: the police are agreeing to do this just because Pateria is an upper-caste politician, and if a poor individual complained about the same thing, then the police wouldn’t have listened to them. However, given the importance that’s put on these two jackfruits, Mahima and her team are left with no other option but to go searching for the thief (or thieves). And through this process, we see how the worth of her profession is being diminished for the stupidest reasons imaginable.
Kathal is Yashowardhan Mishra’s debut venture into feature film territory, but by collaborating with veteran scriptwriter Ashok Mishra (who has worked with Shyam Benegal in Bharat Ek Khoj, Samar, and more), he has managed to tell a story that isn’t necessarily heavy-handed, yet it covers a plethora of topics in a concise fashion. Going by the surnames of the characters and the setting of the film, you must’ve already figured out that there’s a strong sense of casteism coursing throughout the narrative. And much like Dahaad, there’s no upper-caste male hero who speaks for Mahima and gives a lecture to the casteist individuals. Mahima speaks for herself and leads by example to debunk the whole “merit versus reservation” argument. In one line, Yashowardhan and Ashok plant a slap on the faces of Singham, Simmba, and Sooryavanshi, as Mahima states that inflating one’s muscles and wielding weapons aren’t enough to make someone a good police officer. They explore the dynamic between politicians, the police, and the media and how one feeds into another to stay relevant and gain importance while also offering a solution to how this vicious cycle can be broken. In addition to all that, the writers talk about misogyny and sexism, something that a woman can’t escape despite her class or status. Yes, you can say that the conclusions of all these arcs are too simplistic and on the optimistic side of the spectrum. However, one look at the reality of UP will tell you that optimism is the only way to survive in that place.
Kathal’s commentary isn’t limited to the text. Yashowardhan, along with cinematographer Harshvir Oberai, editor Prerna Saigal, the production design team, and the art direction team, uses the geography of the state to talk about classism and further flesh out the characters. The excessive lavishness in Pateria’s mansion shows the kind of money so-called public servants have and why they prioritize their extravagance over everything else. The high walls and the security show how he fears the people who have apparently voted for him. By the looks of it, Mahima lives in a police quarter, where everything is homogenous enough to “fit in.” The image of B.R. Ambedkar is the only thing that is synonymous with her personality, as she is pushing back against casteism and misogyny on a daily basis. The trip to where the gardener lives tells everything that needs to be said about how casteism pushes those who are deemed lower caste to the outskirts of a town, city, or village. The living conditions (and a lock on the door is the only security system) underscore the economic divide between the state and the country. Anuj’s decrepit ancestral home indicates how his in-laws are barely making ends meet. But, as mentioned before, amidst all this bleakness, Yashowardhan finds humor and even empathy in the characters’ insecurities, their stupidity, and the awkward ways in which they traverse through this world. A major shoutout should also go out to the music composition and sound design departments, as they hugely contribute to the immersiveness of the film.
When it comes to the people inhabiting these characters, it’s a massive win for the cast and the casting department because every single actor is so good. Sanya Malhotra delivers such a measured performance. She never swings wildly for the fences in any scene. But if you look closely, you can notice the nuances, i.e. the confidence, the confusion, the frustration, the compassion, the love, and the rebellious attitude that Mahima carries with her. Anantvijay Joshi is incredibly adorable, and he perfectly conveys the fact that, despite Saurabh’s best intentions, he’s a work-in-progress. Joshi’s chemistry with Malhotra is very organic and, hence, palpable. Neha Saraf, Govind Pandey, and Shashi Ranjan could’ve become the comic relief. However, the little details about their characters’ helplessness and desperation, which are beautifully integrated into the performances, are what make them memorable. The same can be said about Rajpal Yadav’s Anuj, who has delivered his best work since Bhool Bhulaiyaa. I think it’s his best work ever because he isn’t compensating with the pitch he’s synonymous with, and he’s layering it with the analysis of sensationalized journalism. Everyone in the Pateria household is extremely amusing. The constant expression of disdain on the faces of Vijay Raaz, Dhirendra Tiwari, Namrata Dhamija, and Megha Shukla really cracked me up. Brijendra Kala, Raghubir Yadav, and Ranjan Raj’s cameos are awesome. Technically, anyone who appears for even a few seconds—like Sanjay Dadich, Apratim Mishra, Ambrish Saxena, or Apoorva Chaturvedi—just knocks it out of the park. So, at the cost of sounding repetitive, the cast and the casting director deserve a huge round of applause.
Kathal: A Jackfruit Mystery is one of the best movies of the year. Yes, it’s copaganda. But it’s the kind of copaganda that attempts to look inward and talk about what’s exactly wrong with glorifying police work and police brutality and seeks to correct it through its characters. Also, any copaganda that chooses to address the caste system (or any kind of religious discrimination) as the root of all evil is a must-watch in my books. I think Hindi movies and shows still have a long way to go in terms of representation via casting because upper-caste actors are still the ones who are playing characters from various minority communities. Kathal is probably an exception because the actors playing characters who are deemed lower-caste are doing so in a realistic and respectable fashion while calling out the kind of bigotry that’s getting normalized in real life. I appreciate that, like Gulmohar, this film spells out the film’s name in Urdu, along with the English and Hindi versions. It used to be a common practice in Bollywood films but has been discarded for some not-so-mysterious reasons. And I want to lament the fact that Kathal looks so great that I would’ve preferred watching it on the big screen. Anyway, what you’ve read is just my opinion. Please watch the Sanya Malhotra-led film on Netflix and do share your thoughts with us.