The film opens in the lush interiors of Meghna’s plush Delhi office, where she watches the clip. It closes with Meghna trying to rediscover the Mohandas who is now lost to both worlds – one, the world he was born into, and two, the world he dreamed of and worked towards fulfilling through honesty, integrity and hard work. Mohandas’ outrage at every link in the chain that conspires to abort his desperate and honest attempts to what it his by right - his name, his identity and his job, slowly changes into a search for the man who stole it from him, as if, right from under his nose. Who is this man? Mohandas is determined to find out. He does, and the film acquires new momentum, the chase taking on the elements of a thriller, moving across narrow labyrinthine gullies of the small town, to offices where files are opened only with the cliché ‘paperweight.’ His fact-finding mission turns into a rebellion of a different kind – he retreats into a new no-man’s land, disowning his identity that he realizes, no longer belongs to him. When the relentless Meghna knocks at his door, he is a changed man – disillusioned, embittered, his head bloody, but unbowed.
Mohandas moves backwards and forwards in time, tracing the growth of Mohandas as a young man, distanced from the mainstream both by his brightness at academics and his poor background. The quiet Mohandas accepts the open barbs a failed, muscle-wielding classmate targets him with, determined to prove his worth in action and execution. He gets married and his young and supportive wife delivers a son. But his world collapses with the shock of discovering that someone has usurped his name and identity forever. His parents, who have aged beyond their chronological age because of poverty, are helpless witness to their only son’s trauma and grief.
The characterizations are rounded and fleshed out, in their greys and their ambers. The local stringer was actually using Mohandas’ story as a vertical ladder to the top. Meghna on the other hand, represents the face of a committed journalist who tries her best to rise above the limitations of her channel. Sometimes she succeeds, sometimes, she does not. Kamran’s non-starry cast has vested the characters with credibility. Nakul Vaid virtually lives Mohandas in his varying moods, looks, body language and even his silences. His face registers incredulity when he is bashed up and thrown out of an office, back to the naïve young man joking around with his cronies, to the bearded young man who has forgotten to smile, to the bewildered and embittered Mohandas who is shocked to find that the man who has usurped his name, his identity and his life, the man who now lives in the unabashed luxury of bribery and corruption with his mistress-turned-wife, is neither guilty not embarrassed. Sushant Singh as the identity-thief in his brazen villainy, arrogance and corruption is brilliant. He aptly expresses his inner revenge that had built up inside him since the time he flunked college while Mohandas, in the same class, had passed out with flying colours. Sharbani Mukherjee as Mohandas’ silent, supportive wife whose innocence and beauty have been sacrificed at the altar of poverty on the one hand and her husband’s dilemma on the other is eloquent in her silence.
Sonali Kulkarni as the journalist and her upwardly mobile boyfriend show the polarized images of media persons in metro cities. Uttam Haldar as the ambitious stringer in a remote town in Madhya Pradesh shows the face of ruthless ambitioun that exploits a personal tragedy by converting it into news bytes to go one rung higher on the ladder to the top. When the film ends, we learn he has moved to Delhi to join a famous news channel as reporter. Aditya Srivastav as the lawyer shows the other face of honest commitment stretched to a tightrope walk between life and death. Govind Namdeo proves his versatility in a positive role. He is cast against his villainous grain as a judge.
Kamran has not used a single junior artiste in the entire film and has roped in local people to play their natural roles. An interesting scene with rituals followed in marriage within the weaving community improvised with help from the local weaving community adds a note of peace and harmony, so what follows comes as a shock. Shot extensively on location in Sonbhadra district, a coalmining area along the border of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, Mohandas has an ambience of ‘open-ness’ about the visual locales that stand sharply in contrast to the dark subject of the film. The background score and the songs, blend beautifully into the mood and the ambience of the film, especially when Mohandas tries to cope with his tragedy in silent, impotent anger, sailing on a boat, or just gazing at the horizon on a river bank, all alone even when is wife is right beside him, trying to share his tragedy in vain.
The camera moves almost like a candid camera, its pace in keeping with the editorial and narrative pace of the film, in a manner that makes us feel that the actors are not aware at all that they are being cinematographed. Kamran captures the brightness of the sun as if to juxtapose it against the dark tragedy of Mohandas’ life. The editing changes itself to fit into the changing locations, timing and mutations in Mohandas’ life than according into the changes in the narrative. It is dramatic and cutting in the opening frames, slows down when it goes back into flashback showing Mohandas as a young collegian and gathers momentum when the chase begins to ferret out the thief. In the end, when a heavily bearded Mohandas comes out to meet Meghna much against his wishes, refusing to acknowledge that he is Mohandas, emerging from his small hut atop a hillock, the editing is almost tranquil and quiet in stark contrast to the real drama that has happened in his life.
Mohandas is like a fable. It is more universal than it appears at face value. It represents how deep the malaise of loot has gone into so-called democracies everywhere. It applies not just to our country but is true of many developed nations. Almost everywhere systems are in place, but human beings keep subverting those systems for narrow personal gain. The film moves from the political to the personal, evolves from an investigative news story to the personal quest of Mohandas to his getting back into his shell of poverty and ignominy. It is his way of rebelling against a system that played a vital role in conspiring with those who stole his identity. He no longer needs an identity that is stained with the blood of corruption and daylight robbery of a person’s name, identity and life.
Kamran has made changes in the original story to fit into the language of cinema and also into his personal ideology. “I want my audience to journey along with Mohandas in his struggle to establish himself and then go back to his shell, never to come out again. I want my audience to leave with a lasting image of a man we have marginalized completely, who is necessary and central for the building and sustenance of a healthy society. Mohandas is a metaphor of millions of people forgotten in the villages and small towns in India because we choose to forget them for our selfish motives. Mohandas is a litmus test for all of us framed by the measuring rod of values Mahatma Gandhi stood for,” he says.
Mohandas makes almost no direct reference to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Yet, Gandhi is present everywhere. Kamran begins the film with a Gandhi quote which goes: "Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much for you, apply the following test- Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself- will the step you are contemplating be of any use to him? Will he gain anything by it? Will it give him control over his own life and destiny? You will find your doubts melt away." It expresses a Gandhian world-view that has all but vanished from our consciousness, especially from the concerns of our political leadership. The film is centered on a man from a village who is powerless despite his brilliance and his optimism, his integrity and his hope. The village and the powerless man were both central to Gandhi’s ideology of harmonious living and non-violence. This contrast is ironical. But one cannot deny its universality.