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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Mere Desh Ki Dharti, Review: Suicide or pesticide, you decide

Mere Desh Ki Dharti, Review: Suicide or pesticide, you decide

You get two films for the price of one when you, or if you, go to see Mere Desh Ki Dharti. Now, if you happen to arrive a little late, after the opening credits, the first half makes you wonder whether you have been ushered into the wrong auditorium of a multiplex, and the film you are watching is not Mere Desh Ki Dharti. On the other hand, if you arrived on time, you must wonder whether the reels have got mixed-up (what an archaic thought!) or whether the projector operator has patched the credits of one film with the footage of another. There is not an iota of justification for the title, until…Until the halfway mark. That is when two suicidal engineers land up in a suicide prone village, in remote India, and decide to drop their ides of suicide, in favour of pesticide. No, do, not the drinking kind, but the agricultural variety. How they go about turning the fortunes of the villagers, who live in abject poverty, forms enough justification to call the film Mere Desh Ki Dharti (The Soil of My Country). It’s a well-intentioned film that bites off more than it can chew. And remember, there is no denying that as you sow, so shall you reap.

Two bachelors of engineering and bachelors (single) in life are thick friends. One of them is Ajay, and the other, Sameer. Both are the only children of their parents and live in Mumbai. Both are forced to take-up jobs that do no justice to their qualifications and are very lowly paid. Ajay wants to start a start-up, and needs a few lakhs, to begin with. His father treats him rather badly, because he is repaying the loan he had taken for the education of Ajay in large instalments, while Ajay earns a pittance. While Ajay’s father considers getting his son married for a fat dowry to tide over the financial crisis of the family, he cultivates a relationship with Bhau, an underworld operator, who promises him Rs. 5 lakh after a week, if he agrees to work as a labourer in Bhau’s Ganpati pandal (a large but temporary erection, built annually, to house the deity, Lord Ganesh).

Sameer is banking on a promotion to become the zonal head of his company, and works very hard towards this goal. With the promotion, he will get a much higher salary and his girl-friend’s father will accept him as his future son-in-law. But to his utter shock, a lady colleague, who uses her physical charm, gets the nod of approval from the Boss. Sameer is devastated. Both Ajay and Sameer are so depressed at the state of affairs in their respective lives that they contemplate suicide. One day, they climb a bridge and prepare to jump on to a railway track, thus ending their misery. But they both do not have the courage to take the plunge. Instead, they agree to go to a remote, rural part of the country, and hang themselves there, so that there is no media coverage and their families do not have to go through the ordeal of facing family and friends about the reasons for their young sons’ suicides. They land up in Salamatpur, also known as the suicide capital of the country, for its farmer suicides. Ajay feels that he can and must help the debt-ridden farmers come out of their debt-trap. Sameer, initially reluctant, agrees to join him in his mission.

Based on a concept by Dr. Shrikant Bhasi, the story and screenplay are by Neel Chakraborty and Faraz Haider respectively, while Piyush Mishra has written the dialogues. There is no way of knowing who or what prompted the writers to divide the film into two halves that can be released as independent films. In terms of impact, there are only moments that impress, not the film as a whole. Bringing in an all-in-one amoral ‘fixer’ in Delhi, whom the two friends visit in the hope of getting some much-needed funds, is good for comic effect, but the two engineers go completely out of character in an effort to raise some laughs. By itself, the beggar living under the wall, near the railway bridge, is a very interesting character. Sadly, no effort is made to weave him into the story, and he just exits after his one scene. You feel sad for Pappan’s Daadi (paternal grandmother), who rants all the time, the justification being that she is senile. What was the point the writers wanted to make? And though it is too much of a co-incidence that Sameer’s girl-friend’s father is an agricultural produce exporter, when that is what Ajay and Sameer need, exactly, it can be accepted, since there aren’t too many such co-incidences. Piyush Mishra’s dialogue is pithy and many a line ring true.

Writer-director-actor Manoj Kumar made a film in 1967 titled Upkar. This was at the instance of the former Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who asked him to plot his movie around Shastri’s popular slogan, ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ (Hail Soldier, Hail Farmer). Shastri did not live to see the film, dying in 1966. But the film turned out to be a runaway hit. It had a song that remains an anthem 55 years later, ‘Mere desh ki dharti sona ugley, heerey motee’ (the soil of my country produces gold, diamonds, pearls). It is played on all solemn and patriotic occasions, both government organised and public events. Makers of the present film have shown unabashed admiration of this song, and have even named their film after it. The ‘mukhda’ (opening refrain) of the song is played in its original form as well as in a version. That is a giveaway, preparing you for a story about farmers and their plight. Yet, nothing prepares you for the first half. In Upkar, there was a clash of brothers over land, while in this updated Upkar, the focus is on unemployment, underemployment and farmer suicides. Upkar had a tight screenplay, written by Manoj himself, while Mere Desh Ki Dharti has several lacunae in its narrative.

While Upkar was Manoj Kumar’s directorial debut, Mere Desh Ki Dharti is the fourth outing for Faraz Haidar (Ticket to Bollywood, Nanu Ki Jaanu, War Chhod Na Yaar). Not having been exposed to his earlier work, I cannot comment on his growth or otherwise as a director over the ten years since his maiden effort (actually eight, since this film was scheduled to be released theatrically on August 14, 2020, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Except for the lead pairs, the rest of the cast essay stereotypical roles, not being challenged. This may be the easy way out, and does not really test the actors, but cannot be faulted for casting. Ajay and Sameer, playing best friends, are well-contrasted.

Dividing the film into two distinct halves was a brave decision, which has not really worked in the film’s favour. Inclusion of an item song, performed by a foreign dancer, is a sure sign of surrender to the box office, but does nothing to add to the value of the film. Though it is called Salamatpur (safeplace), the place where the two friends end-up is around Bhopal (capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh), going by the dialect spoken by the characters there. An accent or a dialect lends itself to comedy inherently, and that is what the film cashes in on. Surprisingly, the grandmother, who should have been speaking with the heaviest dialect, speaks proper Urdu. Ajay convincing an entire village by using a simple trick appears too incredible, while the sudden removal from the scene of Sameer and his later re-entry is contrived and illogical.

Having worked in both memorable (Pyar Ka Punchnama, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Batti Gul Meter Chalu, Chashme Buddoor) and forgettable (Ekkees Toppon Ki Salaami, Dilliwaali Zaalim Girlfriend, 2016 The End, Shukranu) productions, Divyendu (Sharma) fits the role of Ajay. His diction, however, is often flat and occasionally, though clear, and he appears not too serious about the proceedings, even letting a tongue-in-cheek smile escape in a humorous scene, when he’s supposed to be deadpan. Another Sharma (Sultan, Gunday, Tiger Zinda Hai), Anant Vidhaat, plays Sameer, and shows promise. His pronunciation is impeccable and his soft face highly malleable. One scene, in which he roughs up his boss, stands out. Inaamulhaq as Pappan Khan has the kind of looks that late Mukri was known for: a face that makes you smile, or even chuckle, as soon as he makes his entry. A bright future in comedy awaits him. Atul Shrivastava as Ajay’s father hams in the uni-dimensional style that he used to typify in the TV serials of yesteryear. For company, he has Brijendra Kala, the chemicals and fertilisers dealer Dubey, who has little to offer by way of novelty. Rutuja Shinde plays Sameer’s nagging girl-friend, and has little to do. By contrast, sultry Anupriya Goenka as Jhumki, Dubey’s daughter, shows exuberance. Only, her Bhopali accent is laboured. Rajesh Sharma is his usual, easy-going self, as Kishanlal.

We lost Farrukh Jaffar (Daadi) last October, at 88, and the Hindustani film industry is the poorer for it. Even in an ill-defined role, she draws laughter. Veteran Dalip Tahil as Shilpa's father has another half-written role, which does not deter him from carrying it through without a glitch. Imran Rasheed as Ramdas does a very good job, while Kamlesh Sawant as Bhau, though spirited in delivery, is hopelessly typecast, based largely on his features. Scarlett Wilson as Special Appearance must have got used to this epithet by now, having done item numbers in many a film. Four names are mentioned under the dedication head. Obviously, these four passed away during or after the shooting of the film: Farrukh Jaffer, Habeeb Aazmi, Arun Verma and Manish Karjaokar. Arun played Sameer’s boss in the film, was from Bhopal and an acquaintance of mine. Sad to learn about his passing away. Habeeb Aazmi played the Sarpanch (village council head), with ease, while about Mahesh Karjaokar, I know nothing. Leading into the climax is Annu Kapoor, in his signature style. Shabnam Vadhera, Ajay’s mother mopes as demanded and Anoop Joshi pours venom as the Bank Manager who drives his debtors to suicide. Others in the cast are Manurishi Chadha, Aparajit Singh, Neel Chakraborty, Sanjay Gurbaxani, Dr. Chandresh Shukla and Deepak Shah.

Vikram Montrose has scored the music. A version of ‘Mere desh ki dharti’ is rendered by Sukhwinder Singh, the right choice to reprise a Mahendra Kapoor original. There are four other songs, at least two too many, all written by lesser known poet Azeem Shirazi, of which ‘Jallad zindagi’ resonates. Cinematography by Hari K. Vedantam and editing by Pratik Chitalia are of a routine quality. Thankfully, the length is kept under control, at 111 minutes.

Mere Desh Ki Dharti charts a strange territory, unable to decide whether it is an urban comedy, a rural tragedy, a portrait of the grim employment situation in the country or a tableau of the exploitation of farmers, or all of the above. It might be driven by noble intentions, and works fine in parts, but is open to many contentions.

Rating: ** ½



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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