Director Vishal Bhardwaj is a master world-builder, designing rich spaces for his characters to inhabit and filling them with evocative music of his own creation. Pataakha (“Firecracker“) is the latest example of Bhardwaj’s formidable skill.
Based on the short story Do Behnein (“Two Sisters“) by Charan Singh Pathik, Pataakha‘s plot is simple. Badki (Radhika Madan) and her younger sister Chhutki (Sanya Malhotra) are constantly at war, each blaming the other for her sorry lot in life. But when they set out to achieve their dreams independently, they discover they need each other more than they thought.
The tale feels like a familiar parable, something one might expect to find in a storybook for children, were it not for all the swearing and fighting. Badki and Chhutki are their small Rajasthani town’s source of entertainment, their curse-filled brawls drawing enthusiastic crowds. Every fight ends with the girls’ father, Bechara Bapu (Vijay Raaz), dragging his daughters home — but not before getting battered in the melee himself.
Adding to Pataakha‘s folkloric feeling is the presence of a trickster character, an itinerant jack-of-all trades named Dipper (Sunil Grover), whose joy in life is instigating fights between the sisters. He snitches on them to each other, and he invents conflict when things are too peaceful. When Badki and Chhutki get boyfriends — Jagan (Namit Das) and Vishnu (Abhishek Duhan), respectively — it gives Dipper more fuel to stoke the fires of war.
Bhardwaj is clearly fond of both the character of Dipper and the actor who plays him. This may be more perception than reality, but it’s almost like Grover’s face is in sharper focus than the other actors’ — and it certainly seems like he gets more closeups. Whether that’s true or not, my attention always gravitated toward Dipper, just to see what he was going to do or how he would react, no matter what other chaos was happening on screen.
For so much attention to be given to a secondary character — as delightful as he is — hints at Pataakha‘s biggest problem: there isn’t enough material to warrant a full-length feature film. Trimming the runtime by thirty minutes would’ve been a start, but Pataakha‘s story would feel most at home as part of a collection of short stories.
It’s by the strength of Bhardwaj’s world-building and the performances he gets from his actors that Pataakha is as enjoyable as it is. Raaz is charming as the girls’ flawed father, who lectures them on the dangers of smoking by showing them the warnings on a half-empty packet of cigarettes he pulls from his own pocket. Madan and Malhotra give it their all in what must have been a fun but exhausting shoot, spending most of their screentime fighting, screaming, and crying as they do. Das and Duhan are solid in their supporting roles.
The movie’s showstopping item number, “Hello Hello,” is another highlight. Written by Bhardwaj and sung by his wife, Rekha, the sexy song is brought to life onscreen by the incomparable Malaika Arora. Unlike many lesser item numbers, cinematographer Ranjan Palit keeps his camera a respectful distance from Arora, without zooming in on particular body parts. This is not just a matter of decency but an acknowledgement that, when Arora dances, you need to see her from head to toe.