Sunny Deol, his bulk concealed beneath shapeless kurtas and dhotis, plays a Brahmin priest facing a crisis of faith in Varanasi in Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Mohalla Assi. Adapted from Kashinath Singh’s 2004 novel Kashi Ki Assi, the heavily-delayed production plays out at the Assi Ghat of the title. Here, profanity mingles freely with polemical debates on the state of Hinduism and characters cuss lustily, engage in wordy debates, and make the glow of the Exit This Way Please sign seem very appealing indeed.

Always dull despite the vibrancy of the city in which it plays out, Mohalla Assi tries to gain an edge by courting controversy. The movie spans the decades around the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, and frequent chants of “Har Har Mahadev” are replaced by salutations
of “Jai Shri Ram”. The Hindutva lite screenplay appears to believe that the mosque’s destruction by Hindutva groups was a jolly good thing, and Sunny Deol’s Dharam Nath Pandey even marches to Ayodhya to do his bit. “The whole country is saying Jai Shri Ram,” Dharam Nath says with an absolute lack of irony.

What can I get you from Ayodhya, Dharam Nath asks his shrewish wife Savitri (Sakshi Tanwar), who is forever huffing and puffing around the stove and berating her husband on his meagre income. One way out for the dogmatic priest could be to rent out part of his home to foreign tourists, but in this dated narrative, global capital is as much of a sin as meat. Horrified that Varanasi is selling out to tourist interests, Dharam Nath Pandey prefers to stay away, but even he finds it hard to resist when his daughter begs to enrol in a computer class.

Ravi Kishan has the more fun role as a savvy tour guide who has no hang-ups about Varanasi’s status as a centre of karma cool. What is supposed to be a satire about the exploitation of religious sentiment becomes a plodding dirge about a disappearing way of life. The frequent profanity spices up things, and proves that the sacred and the profane are equally at home in one of the holiest of Indian cities.

Mohalla Assi (2018).