Set in 2004, focussing on the economic and social changes that were kicked off in the 1990s, and released in 2017, Mantra ultimately belongs nowhere.
Nicholas Kharkongor’s debut feature is the story of a snack company owner (Rajat Kapoor) who wages a two-pronged war at work and at home. Kapil Kapoor’s King chips is being crushed by multinational rival Kipper, even as his wife and three children drift away from him. Piya (Kalki Koechlin) wants to move out and be independent – her father might be a wealthy man, but it appears that he doesn’t have an extra room in his bungalow for her.
Kapil’s son Viraj (Shiv Pandit) is too involved with his own business to bother with his father’s looming bankruptcy. The other son, Vir (Rohan Joshi), is lost somewhere in the chat rooms that were popular until smartphones took over our lives.
Wife Meenakshi (Lushin Dubey) doesn’t actually have a problem, but since the schematic script needs to keep the character gainfully employed, Kharkongor invents one – she is a neglected wife who clings to her cigarette with the same passion with which Charulata grasped her binoculars.
The chips are down. What is Kapil to do? He puts on a fake smile for public consumption and privately mourns his fate behind closed doors.
Mantra could have been a character study of a patriarch’s authority being undermined on many fronts in a fast-changing economy. Rajat Kapoor is certainly ready for the challenge, and turns in a nicely judged performance as the troubled entrepreneur who is unable, and unwilling, to accept the inevitable.
However, Kharkongor’s script simply doesn’t have the layers of complexity to match its ambitions. The mostly English dialogue is stilted, the pacing is sluggish, and many of the scenes are disconnected from each other.
Should we care if the manufacturer of a fattening deep-fried snack swims or sinks? The question is irrelevant in 2017, where cola and snack companies are on the backfoot over health concerns and multinational corporations have been sufficiently Indianised.
Kapil is hardly a model object of empathy. He is a member of the Delhi elite, has connected friends, and is too self-involved to shed tears over. He is not a cornerstore owner who has to rethink his business strategy. Will he will slay Kipper or be gobbled up by it? This battle isn’t worth fighting.