Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Mere Pyare Prime Minister is one of those wonderful little reminders of why I watch every Hindi film release. That gems can be discovered in the unlikeliest of places. And perhaps above all, not to judge a book by its cover, or in this case a movie by its appearance.
What at first glance looked to be yet another film which hopes to bludgeon you over the head with a social message, and perhaps border on propaganda territory, is actually a wonderfully simple, heartfelt and surprisingly affecting tale about one boy’s mission to get a toilet built in his slum.
To the credit of writers Hussain Dalal, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Manoj Mairta, apart from a few shaky scenes, the film doesn’t get too carried away with ambition, melodrama and life-altering impact. Instead, they set out to tell a small, self-contained story which in moments becomes a thing of gentle beauty. Mehra’s film is confidently made, and strangely (yet refreshingly) very un-Bollywood in approach and aesthetic. If anything, it’s far closer to a film you’d expect to see at a festival.
MPP follows the story of Kanhaiya (Kanu), played by Om Kanojiya, a young boy who lives in a Mumbai slum with his single mother Sargam (Anjali Patil). Their slum, like many, doesn’t have public toilets which leaves those who live there to defecate in the open That is until, one night when a lone Sargam ventures out to do her business only to be cornered by a local policeman and raped. While Kanu doesn’t quite understand the nature of what’s happened, he sees his mother’s distress and feels her pain. While she comes to terms with her ordeal, young Kanu and his friends set off on a quest to build a toilet for his mother whatever the cost, even If it means going to the Prime Minister himself.
The film’s first half plods along, unassuming, without doing too much to grab your attention, simply showing us its characters go about their lives – which weirdly works in its favour. Its only-post interval, when our young lead has his sights set on building a toilet come what may, that you truly fall in love with Kanu, his mother and above all his friends.
The four young’uns that make up Kanu’s gang are the soul of MPP which allow it to soar when it does. The film’s best portions are those which focus on them and their adventures and exchanges. One scene early on, sees a foreigner who frequents the slum, presumably because she works for an NGO, give Kanu a crate of condoms to distribute freely. Watching him and the gang run around town distributing them to one and all is hilarious and a joy to watch. Similarly, a scene later on, shows the four go about the length of the city to raise funds however they can to build the toilet, which is equally delightful.
In these moments, MPP reminded me of Sean Baker’s fantastic The Florida Project which similarly centres on the playful, often hilarious adventures of young children who live in a world of poverty. As Kanu, Om Kanojiya is arguably the least enjoyable to watch among the four, what he lacks in acting chops he makes up for in innocence and general adorable-ness. In terms of the wider performances, the usually fantastic Anjali Patil (of Kaala and Newton fame) works well enough here, though doesn’t really uplift things as you’d hope. A special nod to the sincere Niteesh Wadhwa who plays Pappu, the man who loves Sargam.
Though certain scenes fall flat and feel cringe-worthy. One where Kanu and gang visit a local BMC office to demand a toilet be built, serves as nothing more than fact-feeding for the audience. Similarly, when told they need to go to the Prime Ministers’ house the kids literally jump on a train with ease and walk right up to his house, deliver their message and then come back. Because it’s literally that easy. Equally the film’s climax feels the need to put Kanu in a random life-threatening situation just for the sake of dramatic flair which was entirely unnecessary.
In the end, MPP makes you realise and appreciate just how diverse director Mehra’s filmography really is as one of our most interesting filmmakers. I for one am glad I made the trip to watch Mere Pyare Prime Minister, a film that reminds me of why I do what I do – magic can be found anywhere. I’m going with three and a half stars.