Toofan Mail 8 Down ‘Wench Film Festival’ Review: Certain faces convey certain things. The white of Ancient Greek sculpture conveys a certain serenity that cuts through even the violent scenes they represent. The rock-sculpted faces of iconic American Presidents in Mount Rushmore convey the solidity of administration under them. Their iconic imagery instills the beauty that lies in power. Speaking of beauty’s age-old wedlock with power, the various Indian rulers and their lives come to mind.

An Indian royal’s face has an easy-to-identify enigma about it. When you picture the eighteenth-century Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, you’ll have a rounded figure in front of you. A potbelly, round eyes full of longing, and a round face. There’s something internally rich and artistic about observing figures of Indian royalty. This is exactly a quality that permeates through the protagonist of Toofaan Mail 8 Down (2022). The film tells the story of Begum Aalamara, a lavish woman who arrives in the waiting room of the New Delhi station. It is 1974. The mysteriously pompous woman, who carries along with herself servants, chandeliers, expensive paintings, and books, is reluctant to move from this public property until she talks to PM Indira Gandhi.

The station master Gurpreet finds himself in a dual dilemma. On one hand, he needs to urgently displace this strange woman. She’s someone who might or might not be the queen she claims to be. On the other hand, he also needs to save his job by not indulging in the railway workers’ strikes. Amid all this, the demands of Aalamara vibrate well and truly. She demands the Mahal in Lucknow which she has inherited from her grandfather Wajid Ali Shah. The premise itself works like a mysterious double-edged sword. On one hand, the times are eerily well-versed. The events take place shortly before the Emergency and are entirely real in their snapshot of the Indira regime. However, the story itself is rather fictional.

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A smart callback to the Delhi family which falsely claimed to succeed Wajid Ali Shah, the film doesn’t try hard to remind you that there’s no granddaughter of the Nawab. In fact, it flows so organically that it attains a based-on-real-events vibe to it. And yet, somewhere through the DIY aesthetic and approach, the film cautions us against its own deceptive command. Consider the editing and sound design. It’s so flashy and terribly intercut that after a point it doesn’t matter whether it’s intentional or not. The dialogue has a texture that escalates from Akashvani to Doordarshan. The cinematography and production design are minimalistic, complementing the warmth and odd comfort of the (in)famous “Great Indian Summers”. But mostly, it’s the lingering pauses between the dialogues that make this controlled, composed, and fluid film soar on its own.

The film has the DIY approach embedded into its DNA. Everything has the focus and wide-eyed fascination of an experimental film school project. Its narrative fashion is so light on its feet that it almost works as a check on the maximalist tendencies of a Bhansali joint. There are absurd filmmaking choices poured in from the perspective of editing and even the dubbing of the sound. One such touch is the fact that we never get to see Indira Gandhi’s face, despite hearing her multiple times. The lines between intentional and unintentional get severely blurred as such. However, if there’s one thing that lingers on, is the fact that it is a singular directorial debut for its leading actress Akriti Singh.

As with most such experiments, the actress in Akriti trumps over herself as the storyteller. She’s marvelous, moody, and piercingly perfect as Begum Ara. We’d never know whether she is the queen she claims to be, but her grace and poise at odds with her sadness really make us want to be proven so. Her fight for her identity is radical and rational, so much so that it feels relevant to the present day when the autonomy is bleached out of such provinces without question. There’s an alarming vitality that is effectively restored to pulsating grandeur of these estates and its holders. Singh delivers the persona of the Begum with just the right amount of emotional momentum and flamboyance.

Her bittersweet relationship with Gurpreet is delicately fleshed out by the script. Gurpreet is initially hostile and professionally inclined towards his interactions with ‘the Royal Highness’. However, as we progress through their conversation, we see a profoundly simple and nuanced love story unfolding at a snail’s pace.

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Surya Rao is restrained and impressive as the exhausted young Gurpreet who is desperately in need of companionship. The high point of their romance comes directly at the end when the film works as a charismatically muted horror film. However, the railway strikes have little of this sense of urgency. When Begum or her mention isn’t present in the frame, the frame itself feels wafer-thin and bland.

Akriti doesn’t pay the same amount of attention to the nature of the politics in India at the time, neither does she explore well the vastness of the world outside the station. Where the film works instead, is the electrifying intensity of a simple musical stretch. As the Nawab’s famous thumri echoes through the ruins of the Mahal, where his granddaughter dwells in her finery, we feel a surge of emotions inside us. It’s a completely euphoric scene that comes out of nowhere but it’s the peak cinematic moment of an otherwise low-key film.

It’s in these moments of exquisite pleasure that the film reminds us of Satyajit Ray’s mastery. This also means that Akriti, an accomplished debut leading actor, can direct. The problem with this film, however, is the fact that it’s neither interesting nor immersive enough to be cared for. Perhaps a vast frame and a more steady sense of budget could have helped the film reach the greatness it was close enough to. Even so, it’s an admirable effort.


Toofan Mail 8 Down was a part of the 2022 Wench Film Festival. You can stream the film here


Toofan Mail 8 Down (2022) Links – IMDb
Toofan Mail 8 Down Cast – Akriti Singh, Surya Rao, Arshad Mumtaz, Shahrukh Chauhan

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