Mohalla Assi is about the angst change was producing in Banaras, a city which was at cross roads, not knowing whether to embrace change or fight it tooth and nail. The film is set in a time when people thought they had a choice. India had not opened itself up to foreign money; there was little coming in but whatever came mattered, at least to the people who lived in the anachronistic ecosystem of Banaras. Given the benefit of being in the future, we now know that change was not really a choice, it was the only way forward.
Pandit Dharmanath Pandey (Sunny Deol) is a dyed-in-the-wool priest who just can’t accept a changing Banaras. So obstinate is he in his views that he is blind to the real hardships his family is facing. He is the lone pundit at Assi Ghat who is holding up foreigners from lodging in the houses belonging to Brahmans. The other castes, on the other hand, are making quick bucks by opening their doors to the white foreigners whose currencies go a long way in bettering the locals’ lives. Sometimes they manage to get more than just money for their troubles. Naturally other pandas like Upadhaya (Saurabh Shukla) resent Dharmanath Pandey’s stance on the matter.
The film is not above sarcasm. It differentiates between people and their roles in society. The priests may be educated in religious scriptures and Sanskrit but their conversations are peppered with cuss words. A man in the garb of Lord Shiva still uses these words freely. Clearly outer garb has no effect on the soul.
And there is Pappu’s dhaba where local citizens sit and discuss politics, social order, cast politics in their free time. Many commentaries are made among the characters here that is meant to inform and educate the viewers. People who are not selling out to commercial interests do get heartburn when they see the benefits being reaped by those who do. Embodying the commercialization of Banaras is Kanni (a brilliant Ravi Kishan), a guide, broker and friend all combined in one for the tourists. And there’s Nakka (Faisal Rashid) who transforms from a barber to a Baba with help from one of the foreign tourists.
Despite the busy story, the film is oddly slow. With so many layers, the narrative should have been tight, but film hardly moves. Add to that the periodic verbose discussions in the tea shop makes you feel like you are being preached to.
Performance wise, Saurabh Shukla and Ravi Kishan are excellenet. Sakshi Tanwar as the suffering wife performs well for the most part. All the characters who inhabit the tea shop including Mithilesh Chaturvedi, Mukesh Tiwari, Rajendra Gupta have done well. It is Sunny Deol who is miscast for the role. This is a multi-layered role but Sunny Deol has played it rather flat. He goes overboard where he needs careful calibration, slipping into his screaming dialogue delivery occasionally. His body language too rarely reflects the posture of a man who is down and out.
Mohalla Assi could have been a meaningful film. Unfortunately with the dated feel, a wrong leading man, heavy handed approach of the director and editing which lets scenes linger too long, Mohalla Assi fritters away the opportunity and gives us a film that will be quickly forgotten.