Lengthy but still an entertaining piece centering on a bordello and its ragtag of vibrant characters as Shyam Benegal balances humour and serious women issues with skill.
Dir. Shyam Benegal
1983 | India | Drama | 155 mins | 1.33:1 | Hindi
PG (Netflix rating) for some sexual references
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri, Saeed Jaffrey, Om Puri
Plot: Forbidden love, fraying loyalties and flagrant hypocrisy emerge when sanctimonious politicians drive a madam’s brothel from the heart of Hyderabad.
Source: Shemaroo Entertainment
Subject Matter: Moderate – Prostitution, Women in Society
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
As I journey through the works of Shyam Benegal, I’m starting to realise what a remarkable and underrated director he is.
Mandi continues my fascination with this master of Indian cinema, a lengthy foray (at more than 150 minutes) into the theme of women in prostitution as he sets much of the narrative in a bordello run by a streetwise madame.
The madame is played by Shabana Azmi, who alongside other star names such as Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah, delivers one of her strongest performances.
Entertaining and well-paced despite its length, Mandi doesn’t shy away from a subject matter that deserves more attention, particularly the poor treatment of prostitutes on moralistic grounds.
Azmi’s Rukmini Bai tries her best to protect her ragtag of employees—and her young daughter (Patil) borne out of wedlock—by pushing the agenda of art and music as a ‘front’, but face mounting pressure by righteous authorities to relocate out of the town once it becomes abundantly clear that she is operating a problematic business.
Benegal spends a lot of time getting us acquainted with the main characters, who are each vibrant and interesting, employing humour and sometimes outlandish scenarios to compel us to stick with them.
He also finds a great balance between a lighter approach to the scenarioising and a more serious look at issues related to female agency as the women in the picture, desperate as they are, try to project their self-dignity in the work that they do.
In a way, Mandi is not just about the story of a brothel and its inhabitants, but how these people try to stand on their two wobbly feet in a desperate bid to defy the society that outcast them in the first place.