1 Star (out of 4)
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Madaari (“The Puppetmaster“) is phony populism at its worst. The entire story hinges on unrealistic assumptions presented in an annoying manner.
Man-on-the-street footage is among the laziest of filmmaking cliches because it serves as a form of storytelling peer pressure. The audience is shown that they must feel a certain way because that’s how these hundreds of random, nameless characters feel. It removes the burden from the filmmaker to craft a convincing narrative while simultaneously assuming that the audience wouldn’t be able to understand a convincing narrative even if they saw one.
Without man-on-the-street footage, Madaari wouldn’t exist. Time and again, we are presented with montages of nobodies telling the audience how to feel, gathered around screens and nodding in unison. It’s irritating.
Take the opening of the film. News channels report that the son of Home Minister Prashant Goswami (Tushar Dalvi) has been kidnapped. An anonymous citizen is so shocked that he nearly drives into oncoming traffic. Cut to a shot of a teenage daughter telling her father that he must have misheard the news, since it would be simply too shocking if the home minister’s son was really kidnapped.
WE GET IT! The kidnapping of a politician’s child is a big deal. We’d understand that just as clearly if the information was presented to us with a shot the minister himself receiving the news that his son was kidnapped. Also, this news has no direct impact on the lives of ordinary citizens, so why do they react so dramatically? It’s not like the news was: “Zombies have taken over India! Run for your lives!”
The kidnapper in Madaari is Nirmal (Irrfan Khan), who doesn’t demand ransom but rather information about the fate of his own 7-year-old son, Apu. It’s clear from Nirmal’s choice of target that he suspects government corruption is at play.
Apparently, much of the public also considers the government corrupt since Nirmal immediately becomes a folk hero. But let’s be clear about this: Nirmal becomes a folk hero for kidnapping a little boy!
It’s not enough for the movie to imply that the home minister had it coming (twisted as that would be). The story blames 8-year-old Rohan (Vishesh Bansal) for his own kidnapping because he’s insufficiently Indian. He eschews traditional street food in favor of french fries and drinks bottled water because local tap water makes him sick. As if kidnapping a “foreign” kid is somehow morally justifiable.
Let’s reiterate: Rohan is eight. He’s eight! He’s entirely a product of his upbringing and his environment, neither of which he has any control over because he’s a little kid.
This is important because, even though Rohan is not in mortal danger early on, Nirmal eventually threatens the boy’s life. Yet that doesn’t change Nirmal’s folk hero status. How is it heroic to threaten to kill a kid?
And why should it matter what the public thinks of this guy anyway? Director Nishikant Kamat and writers Ritesh Shah and Shailja Kejriwal overestimate the public’s ability to influence operational decisions in a case like this, pushing the story in a direction that is absurd and stupid.
Lead investigator Nachiket (Jimmy Shergill) adopts a wait-and-see strategy as his rescue plan, since the members of Prashant’s party are most concerned about the optics of the situation. “If he can’t protect his own son, how can he protect the nation?” This doesn’t leave much for Shergill to do, an unfortunate victim of the film’s pathologically boring tendencies.
When given the opportunity, Khan shows all the skills in his acting arsenal. He’s grounded in his depiction of Nirmal, portraying him as a man shattered but functional. Nirmal’s post-traumatic flashback scenes are more informative and emotionally effective than the news footage Kamat uses as filler.
The climax of Madaari is not only unrealistic, it doesn’t satisfy the hunger for social justice the story so desperately tries to stoke. Madaari isn’t even substantial enough to qualify as populist junk food.