Makdee (2002)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now: Vishal Bhardwaj is a genius. I had the great pleasure of watching his first directorial effort with Filmigeek and her hookah (cardamom tobacco!) last evening. Ostensibly a children’s story (although I would hesitate to show it to any kid under six), Makdee is wonderfully original—a spooky folk tale with touches of Shakespeare and the brothers Grimm, beautifully photographed and perfectly paced. The performances—especially Shabana Azmi as the witch, and Shweta Prasad as twins Chunni and Munni—are superb.

Of course Bhardwaj’s background score and songs are pitch perfect too, and he wrote the screenplay (with Abbas Tyrewala). Genius!

We meet the relevant denizens of our village in the opening scene as one by one they join in the chase after a young chicken thief, who has grabbed a pair of hens from Kallu the butcher’s (Makrand Deshpande) coop.

They chase him to the gates of an old crumbling haveli on the outskirts of the village, but none of them will go in after him, especially not the buffoonish pair of village constables. The mansion is reputed to house a scary witch with special powers:

As the villagers discuss the young thief’s bad habits outside the gate and shout instructions to the witch as to what she should do with him, he runs into the house.

The schoolmaster passes by on his way to the school and scoffs at them all:

But his voice of reason is ignored by all except brave Chunni, a schoolgirl on her way to school with her identical twin sister Munni (both played by Shweta Prasad). She announces her intention to go in.

And she does, followed by the curious villagers, but even her courage fails at the sound of a yell from the thief inside. A velvet curtain falls on him; when it’s raised, a goat is standing in his place. And finally we get a full-on glimpse of Makdee, the witch (Shabana Azmi).

Pretty scary stuff! Very gothic.

Despite being twins, Chunni and Munni have very different personalities. Munni is quiet and well-behaved, and a good student. Chunni is mischievous, full of pranks, and she makes her best friend Mugale Azam (Alaap Mazgaonkar) do her homework for her. The only physical difference between the two girls is that Munni has a mole on her upper lip; Chunni delights in putting on a fake one and pretending to be Munni. They live with their widowed father and grandmother, who dote on Munni but are often exasperated by Chunni’s mischief.

Mugale Azam was adopted as a small boy by Kallu, who uses him as an unpaid servant. In spite of his ill-treatment, Mugale is a sweet boy who adores his friend Chunni and his puppy Aladdin. Chunni, for all her trouble-making, is angry at the treatment Kallu metes out to Mugale: she has a very strong sense of justice.

One day they are in front of the mansion speculating on what the witch inside might eat.

Kallu rides into view and falls off his bike in front of them, causing Chunni to shriek with laughter. Angry, he throws a ball into the grounds of the haunted mansion and poor Aladdin runs in after it—and doesn’t return. Mugale is devastated, and it’s the last straw for Chunni.

The next day she frees all of Kallu’s chickens. He is furious, but she tricks him into chasing after Munni instead of her. Munni flees in terror (Kallu is brandishing the sharp razor he uses to cut the chickens’ heads off) and is chased into the haveli, where she disappears. Mugale tells Chunni what has happened, and, horrified, she tries to get the adults to rescue Munni. As a result of all her pranks, though, she has no credibility and her pleas are ignored.

She gathers her courage, and after spending a day lurking at the gate, she goes into the haunted mansion. Confronted by the witch, she asks for Munni and the witch unveils a white hen from beneath the velvet curtain. Terrified, she pleads with the witch for mercy, and Makdee strikes a bargain with her.

She tells Chunni that the day she gets the hundredth hen, she will change Munni back into herself. She also warns Chunni to tell nobody about this deal, and that she will need to play Chunni and Munni so that nobody suspects, and she gives the white hen to Chunni to care for.

For the next couple of weeks, Chunni juggles the two roles of Munni and Chunni, remorsefully cares for Munni in hen form, struggles to steal other hens for the witch, and is haunted day and night at the prospect of failure. Masterji’s lessons on science and reason in school are not convincing for her any more.

What will happen? Can Chunni steal a hundred hens? Will the witch keep her promise? Is she really a witch? Will Chunni and Mugale find out the truth?

Bhardwaj handles everything masterfully, just as he has with his following three films (Maqbool, The Blue Umbrella and Omkara). The characterizations and the nuances of atmosphere and setting provide a rich backdrop for the main action, and Shabana Azmi has to be seen to be believed (she’s almost unrecognizable). Shweta Prasad is enchanting in her double role, too, especially the clever, compassionate Chunni who transforms herself from village pariah to its savior. Wah! Wah!

And thanks to Carla for lending me her DVD so I could do screen caps!

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13 Comments to “Makdee (2002)”

  1. Vishal Filmography till now is very polar in nature.On one hand are two movies intended for children ,on the other are two plots with so much darkness in them.Easily the most promising film-maker in India right now..I call him a one-man-movie-making-army..

  2. His children’s films (particularly this one) have their really dark moments too :-)

  3. I love the guy so much! does his work brilliantly, making it obvious how much he loves it but doesn’t go around airing his ego or even talk about the raw deal he keeps getting from Bollywood (something he’d be perfectly justified in doing). Have you read the book on the making of Omkara? It’s fascinating.

    I wonder what he’d be able to do if he had the resources of, say, del Toro with him. And the fact that he’s been able to wring these performances out of children in both the Blue Umbrella and this one, just speaks volumes for him as a director imo.

  4. Yes, I have the Omkara book, if you mean Stephen Alter’s “Confessions of a Bollywood Love Thief.” I must say that if India had sent Omkara to the Oscars I would have put money on it being one of the final nominees at the very least if not the winner too (not that I care two hoots about the Oscars, because I don’t!)…

    I was so excited when I heard Bhardwaj was planning to make a film about Fearless Nadia, and so sad when he seemed to abandon said plans :-( Wish he could be convinced otherwise! But in any case, I look forward breathlessly to Kaminay!

  5. Hey Greta, have you had the time to check out Iqbal yet? I loved Shweta Prasad there. I loved how it was written AND how well she played it!

  6. I haven’t watched it yet, I really really need to though. Perhaps the prospect of more Shweta Prasad will propel me into it :-)

  7. And I agree – bhardwaj is a genius. His Omkara was awesome, although I haven’t read the original play by Bill (I took an oath after the Tempest (which was a part of my curriculum) not to touch any more of his work. “Prospero”, sheesh! Who has a name like that?!)

    I liked the blue umbrella too. It was one of my favourite books as a 9 year old. I would really like it if Ruskin Bond’s Rusty stories were made into films too.

    I also agree with Ranya on Iqbal. Really nice movie. Both Talpade and Shweta Prasad were really good. God knows what possessed kukunoor to come up with ‘Bombay 2 Bangkok’ after movies like Rockford and Iqbal.

    P.S: I wonder what the Hindi dialogue for “She’s got the biggest pancakes in the world” was.

    Pancake=parantha? Malpua? …What could it be?

  8. I’ll have to go back and listen to the Pancake scene, but I loved the translation b/c I looooove pancakes :-) Okay, Iqbal is moving to the top of my to-watch pile.

  9. I loved Shweta PRasad in both movies. If they ever decide to make a Hindi version of the Harry Potter, I’d vote for her to play Hermione Granger :-)

    ~r

  10. I’m so glad you loved this movie – it was an instant favorite of mine.

    Ramsu: I’d vote for Shweta as a Hindi Hermione – great call!

  11. I haven’t seen Makdee, but totally agree with you on the genius named Vishal Bharadwaj… I have seen Maqbul and Omkara. Both are awesome. The character or Langda Tyagi… My goodness… You just hate him when you watch it…

    Recently I saw a short film by Vishal on AIDS called “Blood Brothers” for a campaign called AIDS Jaago. It’s simply brilliant. The film is available in Youtube. I have put my comments about this short in my blog and you can see the film there too (a little bit of shameless blog-pimping is ok I guess :)

    http://overhead-transmission.blogspot.com/2008/08/lets-talk-filmi-ii.html

  12. A lovely selection of lovely sub-titled movie moments – as so often on this blog :)

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