Feature Narrative Reviews

Kaali Maati (2020) – 2 stars

Director: Hemantkumar Mahale

Writers: Hemantkumar Mahale

Cast: Om Prakash Shinde, Aetashaa Sansgiri, Diksha Bhor

Running time: 1hr 45mins

I’ll be honest, I am not the most qualified critic in the world to weigh up the pros and cons of Kaali Maati. I am relatively poorly versed in the conventions of Indian cinema, so while sudden bouts of irrepressible song – in something that does not appear to be a conventional musical – might seem odd to me; and while I might find the aggressive barrage of anti-smoking messaging that suddenly berated me in the film’s ‘intermission’ slightly off-putting; I am not in any kind of position to comment on my perception of them as ‘strange.’

What I can tell you is that Hemantkumar Mahale’s film does fall into the same trappings as so many of its Western equivalents in the biopic genre. One of the very worst examples of these excesses is Long Walk to Freedom, which presents Nelson Mandela as an unconflicted visionary, who knew exactly the right call to make at every given turn in the fight to democratise South Africa, in contrast with other liberation figures who are shown as being short-sighted or delusional when they dare to suggest anything that did not lead to the creation of the country’s current status-quo.

Intended as a homage to Dnyaneshwar Bodke – a man billed as a ‘visionary’ for his strategic approach to agriculture – Kaali Maati does not go quite so badly off the rails as Justin Chadwick’s 2013 stinker, but it does swiftly suspend any critical faculties it might have had, and verges on becoming a rather mawkish ballad of hero-worship all of its own.

That is not to say that Bodke is undeserving of praise – by all accounts he has not only performed miracles in terms of turning around his own family’s fortunes, but transformed the lives of thousands of farmers across the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh who have signed up to his collective farming initiative, the Abhinav Farmers Club. The problem is that such is the extent of his apparent perfection in Kaali Maati that it proves very difficult to identify with him.

The fact of the matter is, audiences need to forge a connection with the lead character of a story for it to be successful – and being given the chance to empathise with their flaws is key to that. As well as seeing a protagonist’s hopes, we need to know their fears, their foibles, the ways they stand in the way of their own success, so that when things go awry, we share their sadness, or when they win the day, we feel vicarious elation.

Bodke (Om Prakash Shinde) has humble beginnings, and his family do not always understand what he is up to, throwing a spanner in the works every time they second-guess him, but that is not enough for us to really feel like we know him. Throughout the film, we never see Bodke fail by his own hand – and so we have no understanding of his limitations, or the risks he faces aside from being poor.

Bodke started as a child eating scavenged banana peels off the street, while his family was harassed by debt collectors, but such is the weight of his brilliance that these titanic systemic hurdles are treated as inconsequential bumps in the road. Despite being academically gifted, he gives up school to pay off his father’s loan by toiling in the nearby fields. Soon, his travels see him graced with a number of acquaintances who will give him the tools to turn his struggling family farm around. The poverty storyline is then completely binned.

This is only about a third of the way through the film too. The cycle repeats itself another five times at least before Kaali reaches its conclusion; Bodke is suddenly faced with a new ‘challenge,’ which we are told threatens the future of his operations, but five minutes later he is presented with a get-out-of-jail card that means everything will be OK. He is impervious to harm, a Teflon superhero, to whom no trouble can stick for long. It is frustratingly tedious for us to watch, and something which is not at all helped by the film’s opening sequence – which sees a successful Bodke being lauded for his work by the government, showing that even if things do sour at some stage, he is guaranteed to overcome all the ‘adversity’ he meets.

It is all the more galling to be served this kind of narrative with a side-order of Horatio Alger Jr. Were the American writer of young adult novels alive today, he would undoubtedly see much of his work in this film, as an impoverished boy rises from a humble background to a life of middle-class security through hard work and self-belief. Don’t worry, the message comes, you might be a starving farmer in rural India now, but with a little gumption, and being absolutely perfect in every way, you too could pull yourself up by your bootstraps!

At the same time, this film was completed in December 2020, after months of worsening relations between India’s farmers and the country’s government. Hundreds of thousands of farmers, the majority of them Sikh and from the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, have been protesting against the introduction of a series of agricultural laws which they say will leave them at the mercy of corporations, by taking away the safety net of guaranteed prices for certain crops, and leave them at greater risk of losing their land. The farmers have also objected to the laws being introduced without consultation, accusing the government of ramming the changes down their throats.

In response, the Modi regime has taken an increasingly draconian approach to the protests and those reporting on it. As reported by The Guardian, by February 2021, at least 10 sedition cases were been filed against journalists and politicians for tweets related to the protests – while riot police and paramilitary forces have descended on the camps of protesting farmers, barricading them in. Mobile internet access at the camps was suspended for several days, preventing them from communicating the worrying situation to outside observers.

In this context, the heavy-handed exaltation of hard work being rewarded in this film seems almost distasteful. The self-starting attitude of individual farmers – however brilliant they may be – is likely to be stifled if they do not fit with this administration’s plans, and to suggest that simply keeping your hopes high and your head down can see that easily overcome is offputtingly simplistic.

As a technical piece of filmmaking, Kaali Maati is patchy. It is beautifully shot, vibrantly scored, and competently acted – but it’s scripting is lacklustre, while it makes a number of curious editorial decisions, including conducting a number of important conversational scenes as silent montages of two people discussing things we are not party to. The biggest problem, however, is that the protagonist never resembles a living, breathing human being who we can relate to. It might be difficult to critique someone you believe to be great in a biopic, but without doing so you ultimately do a disservice to their achievements, by suggesting they were just the actions of some flawless demi-god visionary, rather than one of us; a person who managed to succeed in spite of themselves, who we can learn from.

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