Cast: Prakash Jha , Anita Chowdhary, Dimpy Mishra, Aarohi Sharma, Idhika Roy, CP Sharma and Aayan Madar
Director: M Gani
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
The likes of Matto Pal are all around us. Most of us choose to be indifferent to their presence - and plight. Hindi cinema does likewise. On the big screen, we hardly ever get to see those who toil to construct our houses, lay our roads, and produce the goods we buy and the food we eat. In a modest, minimalist manner, Matto Ki Saikil trains the spotlight on the pitiable reality of India's unorganized labour force.
Directed by debutant M Gani and headlined by filmmaker Prakash Jha, Matto Ki Saikil is a deeply felt, strikingly authentic and profoundly moving tale of an impoverished daily wage earner who resides in an unexceptional village off Mathura, the filmmaker's hometown. Central to the plot is a bicycle that has seen better days
Notwithstanding the film's sobering premise, it does not give in to miserabilist melodrama. Powered by Jha's presence, it knows exactly where it is going. The film's protagonist, despite the many setbacks he encounters and the exploitation he faces, soldiers on because he is committed to providing for his family come rain or shine.
Matto Ki Saikil follows the beleaguered man as he struggles to survive at subsistence level. The muted drama hinges on the daily grind he must endure. Every morning, Matto cycles to a construction site in the city where he work. He returns to the village before sundown with fellow masons, who, having earned a few hundred rupees for a day's labour, sing folk songs with full-throated abandon.
Matto has no reason to sing. Genuine joy eludes him. Yet he carries on regardless. Like him, his wife Devki (Anita Chaudhary) and daughters Neeraj (Aarohi Sharma) and Limka (Idhika Roy) live in hope that their fortunes will change for the better one day.
Matto's bicycle has served him for two decades. It is now falling apart. As a result, Matto's commute isn't smooth. He does not have money to buy a new bicycle. His pleas for loans to the building contractor and other acquaintances yield nothing. Life goes on...
When Matto plans his elder daughter's marriage and negotiates with the prospective bridegroom's father, the discussion hits a roadblock because a new car is part of the dowry demands.
His decrepit bicycle, which, as the title suggests, is a key character in the film, reflects Matto's plight. Nothing changes for him despite the decades of hard work that he has logged. He continues to languish at the very bottom of the social heap.
Chirpy bicycle mechanic Kallu (Dimpy Mishra) tries his best to keep Matto's spirits up. A momentary, if misleading, sliver of positivity is provided by village head Sikandar Fauji (Chandraprakash Sharma), a man voted to power on the back of a promise to transform the constituency.
He offers to install a tap near Matto's home so that his daughters do not have to go all the way to the ooncha mohalla (high caste locality) to fetch water.
The caste dynamic does not come into play in Matto Ki Cycle in too obvious a way. Matto's social identity isn't specifically highlighted, but it is implied that it isn't the class divide alone that works against him. His financial status and social standing are interlinked.
Matto Ki Saikil intelligently slips tangential political references into the narrative in other ways. Development projects are talked up especially fueled by village-level politicos out to inveigle the voters.
A notice board on a farm land announces an upcoming government-funded road project. Is anything that is in the offing by way of progress likely to alter the fortunes of the marginalised? Development is only chimera for Matto and his ilk.
Without giving away any plot details, one can reveal that the film ends on Independence Day. It does not verbalise the question but in the light of what has gone before it looks askance at the notion of freedom, bringing back to mind the opening sequence: Matto is bent over his bicycle. It has broken down. As he struggles to put the cycle chain back in the groove, a white SUV zips by and leaves behind a cloud of dust.
In a later scene, Matto and his friends are at a police station to report a theft. The inspector treats them with utter contempt. When one of the men repeats the complaint that they want to lodge, the unperturbed man in uniform shoots back: "Behra nahin hoon sunaai deta hai (I'm not deaf, I can hear)." It is hard to miss the irony inherent in the disdainful policeman's utterance, which obviously echoes the attitude of the system as a whole.
The whole system is geared towards suppressing those who are already voiceless and lack the wherewithal to seek redressal of their grievances. That, in essence, is what Matto Ki Saikil drives home without resorting to shrill methods. The film does not rave and rant. It presents its case with gentle, quiet insistence and efficacy.
An out-of-work lawyer sits reading a newspaper at the bicycle repair shop. Reading a story, he announces to Matto and Kallu that a person earning Rs 35 a day will no longer be regarded as being below the poverty line. On another occasion, he reads aloud a headline about a leading industrialist deciding to enter the domain of education.
The village has only one school where teachers are given to playing truant. It has no medical facilities barring a quack who peddles homegrown remedies. The place has no toilets either, which exposes the villagers to raids by an anti-open defecation squad that swings by every so often.
The village in Matto Ki Saikil is a real, tangible place, not the kind of constructed space that Hindi films about rural India are usually set in. The people who live here - Gani casts actors who blend in easily with the setting and this does not exclude Prakash Jha - and the dialect that they speak are rooted and authentic. The village is green thanks to the agriculture land around it, but there are squalor and sludge in its midst.
Prakash Jha, in his third big-screen outing as an actor - he was earlier seen in 2019's Saand Ki Aankh and his own Jai Gangaajal (2016) - disappears, body and soul, almost imperceptibly into the character of Matto and delivers a convincing portrayal.
Matto Ki Saikil pedals a fair distance in laying bare the wages of the pauperization of the powerless in a world loaded heavily against those who are summarily sacrificed at the altar of unsustainable, lopsided development.