By Rachit Raj

Right from its onset, Kaagaz is an odd mix. The film, produced by Salman Khan, starts with a jarring poem in the expressionless, insipid vocals of Khan himself. It sets the tone for a film that always underachieves, despite Pankaj Tripathi delivering a stellar central performance in what is a truly mesmerizing real-life story.

The premise is simple. Bharatlal (Pankaj Tripathi) is deemed dead on official papers by his greedy brothers to get a better chunk of the familial property. The film chronicles the journey of Bharatlal as he tries to legitimize his life in the eyes of law. On paper this is a fascinating idea to extract into a black comedy. It makes sense, then, that the director of the film Satish Kaushik spent years with the story.

But like most stories, the trick lies in the treatment and not the story itself. Kaagaz is just one of many examples of a story that deserved better treatment. This does not mean the film is bad. Unlike a lot of recent material that has come out on the digital platform that simply feels dated, Kaagaz seems rooted in its cultural setting, which is pivotal for any true story.

A goof-up like this fits the corrupt, chaotic reality of Uttar Pradesh. And yet, Kaushik, who is also credited as the writer here, does not get the essence and idiosyncrasy of the state to benefit the comedy inherent to the very premise of the film. Kaagaz is a rare film that does not have to look for humour. A story like this comes with obvious moments of quirkiness peppered, and characters that further the absurdity of a system that trusts a paper more than a living, breathing person. And yet, the most frustrating part of watching the film was just how bland, repetitive, and unfunny the film was. Kaushik seems to have adopted a style of spoon-feeding here that reduces the conflict to something too simplistic, an arc too naïve to care about.

The next bit of the film is less frustrating and more disappointing. Bharatlal is a character tailor-made for Pankaj Tripathi. He carries off the innocence, haplessness, and eventually the frustrations of a man denied a life on paper commendably. Sadly, the film does not trust its actor or its script enough to exploit the natural timing of Tripathi to elevate the film.

Kaagaz is not a particularly terrible film, it is just a forgettable one, which is often worse. The film is stuck in a whirl of clichés, and catastrophes that turn it into a film that never dares to dream of being a standout. After all, there is only this much that a cast of good actors can do when the director is obsessed with filmmaking style that works more as a self-aware satire now than a heart-wrenching emotional drama, and a producer who is obsessed to leave a mark of his dry, lifeless voice over a film that never has enough life for a story about life in the face of false death.

(Kaagaz is now streaming on Zee5)