Mohalla Assi, long in the making and beset with censor problems, had some crucial points to make about a changing India, a country where politics and religion make for strange bedfellows, and several centuries co-exist on the banks of the Ganga, in Banaras where the film, Mohalla Assi, is set.
Chandraprakesh Dwivedi picks Kashinath Singh’s novel to make a film, which results in the lazy and ineffective shortcut of characters rattling off pages of dialogue-telling, instead of showing, what is happening to Banaras and, by extension, to the country. The Ram Janmabhoomi karsevak agitation and Mandal Commission are hastily thrown into the pot, with no real connection to the story, except for one of the garrulous characters in the town’s watering hole, Pappu Ki Dukan, pointing out that the ‘Har Har Mahadev’ chant of Banaras has suddenly changed to ‘Jai Shri Ram’, alluding to the rise of an intolerant Hindutva.
Amidst the turbulence of the 1988-98 decade around him Dharmnath Pandey (a placid Sunny Deol, hopelessly miscast), tries to hold on to the purity of his faith, that decrees that no foreigner can set foot in the Brahmin stronghold of Assi Ghat. Others resent that non-Brahmins are making money by renting rooms to foreigners, while Pandey forbids it. His wife Savitri (Sakshi Tanwar) is tired of poverty and the deprivation her children have to suffer.
In contrast, is the cheerful greed and opportunism of a local guide Kanni (Ravi Kishan) and a barber-turned-guru (Faisal Rashid), who have no qualms about conning gullible foreigners who come to Banaras for spiritual salvation.
The stance of the book is bold, which the film cannot quite be, considering today’s toxic environment, so the profanity-spouting characters that must have been quite colourful in the book, turn into cardboard cut-outs in the film, each representing a particular ideology. The swear words are sprinkled liberally, which makes the viewer flinch, and the character speaking it look fleetingly uncomfortable. The film is eventually ruined completely by its disjointed script and stodgy direction.