Vishal Bharadwaj's oustanding Makdee ("spider's web") is a children's film that doesn't talk down to children. Free from preachy moralizing and artificial cheeriness, Makdee is scary and gripping from beginning to end. Its heroes are children who are mischievous and naughty, yet good at heart and lovable. Its witchy villain is creepy and cruel. Mixed together in VIshal Bharadwaj's cauldron, these ingredients bubble over into a fun and thrilling adventure.
Chunni and Munni (Shweta Prasad) are identical twins - they are distinguishable only by a mole on Munni's upper lip - but they couldn't be more different. Timid, straight-laced Munni is a polite demure child and an ace student. Her brash, troublemaking sister Chunni shoots her mouth off, steals food, cheats in school, and causes mayhem as naturally as breathing. Chunni's friend and playmate, a boy named Mughal-e-azam (Alaap Mazgaonkar), is regularly ordered to do lengthy, unpleasant chores by his adoptive father, the village butcher Kallu (Makrand Deshpande), who feeds him next to nothing in exchange for his hard work. Mughal-e-azam's treatment is an outrage to Chunni's sense of justice, and she engineers a massive prank to exact revenge on Kallu. The prank goes awry, though, and leads to a chain of events that lands Chunni's sister Munni in the clutches of the terrifying local witch (Shabana Azmi). So frightening is the witch that no one in the village - not even sensible adults - will enter the gates of the sprawling property in which her castle looms. Determined to save her sister, Chunni screws up her courage and marches in, only to learn - to her horror - that the witch has turned Munni into a chicken. The witch strikes a bargain with Chunni - bring me a chicken to eat every day, she says, and after you have brought me a hundred chickens you can have your sister. In the meantime, to avoid bringing the witch's wrath upon her, Chunni must tell no one of the bargain, and so must pretend to be both Chunni and Munni so that the witch's nasty deed is not detected. Chunni, scared and miserable, must face the terrible witch alone.
Makdee's dark tone is set magnificently from the opening scenes, in which a boy who has stolen a few coins wanders through the witch's gates and is turned into a goat. This is not a sanitized, Disney-fied witch, but a mean, scary, filthy monster. Even the film's moments of levity have a dark edge, like the cheerful song the butcher sings about the pleasures of decapitating chickens, or Chunni and Mughal-e-azam's musical paean to mischief-making.
The performances, across the board, were outstanding, eliciting through tremendous empathy an emotional response in the viewer parallel to that of the characters. In one scene, Chunni watches the witch drink down a bowl full of blood, and gags in revulsion; I found myself gagging too, connecting with Chunni's disgust. Chunni's deep remorse when she fears that her troublemaking has cost her sister's life is moving, and her triumphs are uplifting. At the moment where Chunni and Mughal-e-azam together make the realization that sets up the film's climax, I actually cheered. This kind of empathy for the children comes readily because they are lovable despite their naughtiness. Even though some of Chunni's antics have selfish motives, others are driven by her strong sense of justice and her desire to protect Mughal-e-azam.
Shabana Azmi's performance is a treat as well. She plays the witch with absolute relish, throwing herself into it with a broad physicality that is utterly delightful. From her creepy gyrations as she performs the magic to turn children into animals, to the growly snarl with which she delivers every line, to her punching-and-kicking fight scene at the film's climax, she transforms into the villain, completely. There is no dignity in this performance - just out-and-out entertainment.
All told, Makdee is a delightful ride, full of charming and repugnant characters, which reminds viewers - without conking them over the head with a weighty message - that things aren't always as they seem, not at all a bad lesson for kids to take home. And even though Chunni's pranks get her and her friends into some hot water, Makdee even allows that a little mischief has its place. This terrific little film is a quick and unexpected new favorite.
Shabana has never looked better! More screencaps will be posted at Sounds Like Power in the near future.