'Kaagaz' Review: Satish Kaushik’s emphatic return to film directing after a hiatus of over six years

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

Films based on real events have tremendously grown in popularity in the recent years as far as Bollywood is concerned. Amongst these, the most popular ones of course are the biographical films, also known as biopics. Now, the sudden increase in the number of biopics has surprised one and all. It’s not that such films weren’t made earlier but today they are being made at an unprecedented rate. Now, while it is difficult to single out one particular biopic that started this trend, it is impossible to overlook three films whose success undoubtedly helped usher in this trend: The Dirty Picture (2011), Paan Singh Tomar (2012), and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013).

Now, the overwhelming success of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, in particular, started the trend of a specific kind of biographical films called sports biopics. Other than sportspersons, traditionally, biopics were mostly made about famous leaders, celebrities, dreaded gangsters, etc. But these days there are no such restrictions and as a result of which the horizons are widening. The latest Satish Kaushik directorial Kaagaz, made for ZEE5, is perhaps the best example of this. Kaagaz is based on life and struggle of Lal Bihari Mritak, a farmer from a small village in Uttar Pradesh, who was declared dead on official papers by his opportunistic uncle who wanted to usurp his property.  

Kaagaz is essentially presented by Kaushik as a satirical commentary on the flawed system of land resources in India and the disasters associated with it. Lal Bihari, who was officially declared dead between 1975 and 1994, had to fight with the Indian bureaucracy for 19 years in order to prove that he’s alive. During his long struggle, he became the leader of many other people who suffered a similar fate at the hands of corrupt and incompetent system. In order to fight for the cause, he added ‘Mritak’ (which translates to deceased in English) to his name and founded Mritak Sangh, an association of dead people, to highlight other cases like his. In a bid to prove that he is alive he even contested in the 1989 elections from Amethi against Rajiv Gandhi—the 6th Prime Minister of India.

Finally in 1994, Mritak succeeded in getting his official death annulled after a long legal struggle. Interestingly, Kaushik acquired the rights to Lal Bihari Mritak’s story back in 2003. But just like Mritak had to wait for almost two decades to get justice, Kaushik too had to wait for nearly two decades in order to realize the film. Kaagaz is produced under the banner Salman Khan Films and The Satish Kaushik Entertainment Production. The film begins and ends with Kagaaz Poetry, recited by Salman Khan, which beautifully explains the hidebound nature of the Indian bureaucracy.

Over the last few years, Kaushik has been working with the Haryana state government to regulate the existing policies in order to attract more film producers to the state. With the endeavor to develop the local film industry in his home state of Haryana on the lines of Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Bangla and Marathi industries, Kaushik produced a Haryanvi film called Chhoriyan Chhoron Se Kam Nahi Hoti back in 2019. The film revolved around a Haryanvi girl who must fight the deep-seated patriarchy to become an IPS officer. Now, Kaagaz marks Kaushik’s return to film direction after a hiatus of over six years. And it’s nothing less than an emphatic return to form for the veteran filmmaker who is known for making films such as Prem (1995), Hum Aapke Dil Mein Rehte Hain (1999), Hamara Dil Aapke Paas Hai (2000), Mujhe Kucch Kehna Hai (2001), Badhaai Ho Badhaa (2002), and Tere Naam (2003).

As a matter of fact, it is Kaushik’s taut direction that elevates Kaagaz above its source material. A veteran of more than hundred films, Kaushik, more than anyone else in the Hindi film industry, understands the importance of telling a compelling story. And being a seasoned actor himself he also understands the actors’ sensibilities really well. And it shows in each and every frame of Kaagaz. During the last couple of years or so we have hardly seen anything refreshing from Pankaj Tripathi. But, fortunately for him, Kaagaz comes to his rescue at just the right time. And with a veteran like Kaushik at the helm, Tripathi succeeds in delivering his best work since Newton (2017). Essaying the part of Lal Bihari Mritak, Tripathi goes through an entire gamut of emotions. One really hopes that Tripathi stays away from run-of-the-mill projects that fail to do any justice to his prodigious acting talents.

To Kaushik’s credit, he also succeeds in eliciting topnotch performances from his other actors which includes the likes of Monal Gajjar, Mita Vashisht, and Amar Upadhyay. Also, he himself plays a very interesting part in the film—that of the lawyer who guides Mritak during his long legal battle. Kaagaz is a poignant film that tugs at our heartstrings. Kaushik reminds us what he is truly capable of achieving as a cinematic storyteller. Perhaps, he is finally ready for Tere Naam 2.

A version of this article was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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