In the vein of bad tear-jerkers (think Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black), the entire purpose of the girl's disability seems to be to use it as a convenient plot element. Her character is of no importance to the narrative -- notice how the protagonist Daasu (Mangesh Desai) has long-drawn scenes where he talks to her, while she sits there motionless not showing any sign of life or communicating with him in any way. Further, the writer (Mane himself) also throws in her biological parents who have been unable to conceive thereafter and are conveniently at hand to service the screenplay.
The silhouette of a little girl moving her hands rhythmically as strings tied to her wrists exert a light pressure makes for a heartrending visual. When this silhouette melts to take the form of a colourful puppet doll, with a real heart, the visual turns awe-inspiring.
Destitute puppeteer Dasu (Mangesh Desai) lives in a makeshift tent in a Mumbai slum. When a communal riot breaks out, Dasu finds an abandoned baby in the slum. He calls the girl Bahuli (doll) as that is all he knows about life, strings, dolls and puppets. The only issue (which is of course a non-issue for Dasu) is that Bahuli is visually-challenged and speech- and hearing- impaired. What follows is a beautiful journey where Dasu holds the strings to Bahuli’s life as she grows up to perform as a living puppet on the streets of Mumbai.
When TV journalist Anushka (Urmila Kanetkar) does a feature story on Dasu and his muse, they become a household name. A sudden twist in the tale comes when a childless couple Mr and Mrs Raje (Prasad Oak and Mansi Salvi) discover that Bahuli is the same infant Mr Raje threw away at birth because of disability.
Writer-director Viju Mane (who made the action-packed Sharyat) tackles a sensitive subject in Khel Mandala. Very subtly layers of human relationships, disability, and manipulative nature of the media, apparently selfish city dwellers and equally selfless villagers, the designs of destiny are all touched upon. The director employs analogies like a puppet narrator to suggest the sea change Dasu’s life goes through after his father’s death and finding of Bahuli. The symbolism of strings that bind Dasu and Bahuli and the shocking climax brings to fore Mane’s belief in a higher power, one that controls the strings of life. The twists are too good to be true, so is the outcome. But that can be overlooked. Among other things, Khel Mandala is beautifully shot.