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!