A wry film with a healthy dose of black comedy, Mandi presents a sarcastic look at the tension between venerable but questionable traditions and modernity in its various forms. Shyam Benegal films often explore broad social themes through a closely focused lens, in detailed studies of relationships among a handful of people. Mandi ("market") is broader in scope, featuring a large number of characters whose relationships form an intricate web in which concepts like loyalty, morality, and duplicity are tangled.
Based on a short story from an Urdu short story called "Anandi" by Ghulam Abbas, Mandi is presented as a black comedy about a group of prostitutes, led by Rukminibai, who struggle against the 'morality-police' forces in the city that want them thrown out, and their brothel destroyed to make room for 'development'.
Rukminibai (Shabana Azmi) plays the bordello in Puratanpalli. The major attraction of the brothel is Zeenat (Smita Patil) who is an excellent performer per se but a character without any soul. Havaldar(Harish Patel), Photographer Ramgopal (Om Puri), Businessman Gupta (Kulbhusan Kharbanda), Agarwal (Saeed Jaafrey) and Dungdoo (Naseeruddin Shah in a school-boy cut) are the other major male characters who are centrally or peripherally related with Rukminibaai. Except Dungdoo (the servant) everyone has his lust, economics or an otherwise self to fulfil. The girls 'working' for Rukminibai really represent the female side for each male character. We see Neena Gupta, Ila Arun, Anita Kanwar, Soni Razdan and Sreela Majumder playing those different shades of grey. Except Phholmani (Sreela Majumder) who was conned into prostitution by her paramour there is no one who could be sympathesized with.
Rukminibai is evicted from Puratanpalli by cunning Gupta to a place which she soon discovers to be Baba Khadag Shah's shrine. This second place becomes popular thus causing second eviction of Rukminibaai. In that process Rukminibai loses all her girls as they leave her. Including Zeenat, who was shown to be fallen in love with Agarwal's son Sushil. Rukminibaai is left with only Dungdoo at the end.
Mandi explores the hypocrisy of the society, but it's not as much a social movie as it is a satirical comedy. This is one of Benegal's most enjoyable movies in this regard. The film includes so many hilarious moments, keeping the audience entertained and yet never losing its seriousness. The humour comes in equal parts from the superb witty dialogues, the lifelike situations, the colourful characters, and the dark, ironic mood of the film, in which a serene but humorous narrative presents serious issues and flavours them with great sarcasm. That's what makes the film the more so amusing and funny.
One of the reasons Mandi works is the collaborative work of the ensemble cast, which includes some of the most talented actors in India, all of whom understand the film's darkly comic tone and act accordingly. Unquestionably, it is Shabana Azmi who leads the film as Rukmini, the domineering but caring madame of the house.
Mandi's final scene is a little bit puzzling, but the ultimate message may be that degradation is in the eye of the beholder, and that perhaps the concealed hypocrisy of those who call themselves modern and upright is just as oppressive as the ancient traditions of the kotha. Whatever the true moral of this amorality tale may be, though, it is a terrific film.