SAIFF 2011: DEOOL (THE TEMPLE) Review

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni's Deool is a political satire that literally slays the sacred cows of Indian politics and devotion. Kulkarni's focuses his keen eye on rural Maharashtra and the speed with which corruption can move through a well-meaning community when wealth and power are involved. Strong performances from Nana Patekar and Dilip Prabhawalkar in the lead roles are a major part of Deool's success.  Patekar is one of the many Indian character actors just waiting for an international production to boost his profile, I eagerly await the casting directors in the west to discover this gem.

One day in rural Maharashtra, a regular guy is out searching for his lost cow. When he finds her, he is so exhausted from the quest, that he takes a nap under a ficus tree just outside of his village of Mangrul. Not too long after, he is briskly awoken by a vision of the Lord Dutta, the Hindu deity representing the holy trinity of Brahma (creation), Vishnu (preservation), and Shiva (destruction). He becomes so excited that he shouts about his epiphany to the whole town, most shrug it off, but a few including the wife of the local political leader Bhau (Nana Patekar), take him seriously, and start to wonder what good they can make from this.

Bhau is a good politician in a place that needs good politicians.  Mangrul is a town with electricity only 4 hours per day, there is no hospital, the schools need updating, and all of the major utilities could use some major improvements.  He really wants to get things done, and with an election pending, he thinks it might be time to make it happen. Bhau also answers to his regional party chief, who is none too pleased when he hears about the religious fervor that has swept up the town upon hearing the news about Lord Dutta.

At first, the two men in power attempt to quash the devotional fervor, but soon enough, the local youth party makes plans for a temple public, and everyone starts seeing Rupee signs. The plans for the school and the hospital go by the wayside as the regional party starts funneling obscene amounts of money to Mangrul for the construction of Dutta's temple. The youth party starts selling blessing on the street and plastering Lord Dutta sitckers with the name of Mangrul on all passing cars that go through the local toll station. Dutta-fever reaches a pitch and Mangrul goes from a rural backwater to a devotional center in a matter of less than a year. 

This town that was having trouble getting constant electricity is now filled with people on smartphones.  All the while, the local residents rush to take advantage of the pilgrims passing through by setting up dozens of shops on the road to the temple. They forget about Dutta entirely, and end up just as profit crazed as the city folk they used to mock.

Deool is not only a film about the dangers of the commoditization of devotion, but the dangers of soft corruption in general. We are reminded how easy it can be for good people to get caught up in bad things, ignoring the greater good and long term security for a quick buck. Nana Patekar's performance as Bhausaheb Galande is an astonishing transformation in that regard, he moves from the person for whom the benefit of Mangrul is paramount, to a tool of the regional political party. He knows what he's doing isn't what's best for Mangrul, but he's bullied into going down the path of least resistance, and once he's on it, he just goes along for the ride.

While this film may not strike a particularly familiar chord in terms of the overt meaning outside of India, its message can certainly be applied to any political situation. Whether it's the devotion of Hindu people in India, or the dogmatic fervor of the Occupy Wall Street/Tea Party folks, blind devotion is a dangerous thing. Politics should be about protecting those who need it most, and in that battle, there is nuance that is very frequently erased because it doesn't make for a good bumper sticker.

Deool is the ultimate triumph of substance over flash. The film is shot beautifully, and they even manage to throw in a few rousing musical numbers, though not in a way typical of major Bollywood films. However, it is the film's soul that will grab you. This is the kind of Indian film that would do very well on the international independent film circuit, it is sharp and incisive and it's messages are universal. Deool is definitely a winner.

Deool (The Temple) shows this Thursday at 7PM at the South Asian International Film Festival.
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