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Review: Satyagraha would have had more heft

<i>Satyagraha</i> is a film whose anthem is ‘Janta Rocks’.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | New Delhi |
August 30, 2013 3:13:25 pm

Cast: Amitabh Bachchan,Ajay Devgn,Kareena Kapoor Khan,Arjun Rampal,Manoj Bajpayee,Amrita Rao,Indraneil Sengupta

Director: Prakash Jha

The Indian Express rating: * 1/2

The trouble with cobbling together your film’s plot from current headlines is glaringly evident in Satyagraha,Prakash Jha’s latest take on What Ails The Nation. It becomes a case of putting on celluloid events that have just finished unfolding,and are still unravelling in front of our eyes: if it is happening in real life,why do we need a reel version? Especially a version which doesn’t add anything of significance to the narrative: it’s all been-here-seen-this-and-that before.

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Mahatma Gandhi may have been the original satyagrahi,but two years ago,there was Anna Hazare,the man who threatened an indefinite fast unless the government agreed to his demands to enact a law against corruption. The image of Anna is still so strongly etched that even when Amitabh Bachchan channels the Mahatma (a classic scene has Bachchan drape his arms around two young girls and walk,in almost the same pose as the Mahatma did,all those decades ago),we instantly think of the man who colonised Jantar Mantar. And when we see Ajay Devgn,who plays Amitabh Bachchan’s trusty lieutenant,we think of Arvind Kejriwal,the man who has broken away and formed his party against corruption,and which is readying to fight the elections in 2014.

There are other characters which Satyagraha borrows from real life: the image of a student setting himself afire is taken from the 1991 Mandal agitation; the too- tiny thread of an honest officer (a direct reference to the slain NHAI project director Satyendra Dubey) being bumped off when he becomes an embarrassment for the local administration is much more recent,but had an equally strong impact.

In a fictional North Indian town,there lives an engineer (Indraneil Sengupta,in a criminally brief role ) who wants to build roads and highways and do his bit for Bharat Nirmaan,and jumps in where angels fear to tread. We all know what happens to conscientious whistleblowers. That leaves his grieving Babuji Dwarka Anand (Amitabh Bachchan) and his anguished wife Sumitra (Amrita Rao) fighting the corrupt system as personified by corrupt neta Balram Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) and his cohorts,with the help of corporate shark-who-is-about-to-have-a-change-of-heart Manav (Ajay Devgn),local wannabe youth-leader-with-a-good-heart Arjun (Arjun Rampal),and feisty TV journalist Yasmin (Kareena Kapoor Khan). The film would have become interesting if the story had allowed for some nuance. If,for example,Amitabh’s upright,moralistic Babuji had been shown to have some flaws,or Manoj Bajpayee’s evil politician who is the chief villain,had been a little humanised,or if Sengupta’s honest technocrat had been given a little more to do,Satyagraha would have had more heft. But then that would have made the fight between good versus evil a little complicated,and who wants complications in a film that serves up uni-dimensional characters who are barely disguised versions of real-life personalities in a story that embraces the simplistic with fervour?

The film progresses with sequences of the sort we’ve seen before in Jha’s own films. The fact that the actors are also the same (Amitabh Bachchan played a near-similar character in Aarakhshan,while Ajay Devgn,Arjun Rampal and Manoj Bajpayee are almost like a Jha repertory) adds to the similar feel. In order to make the film ‘youth-friendly’,the bhajan Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram becomes a ditty. The characters are ciphers flitting in and out: Rampal roams around in a jeep,with slogan-shouting companions; Bajpayee is nicely oily but we’ve seen him in this guise before,and Kapoor Khan’s character,with artfully mussed hair and thick kajal,which journalists presumably sport,is most puzzling: is she an objective recorder of events for her TV channel,or a part of the crusade against corruption? She keeps criss-crossing the lines,depending on what the scene wants her to do.

Devgn’s part could have gone somewhere. As the guy of today who wants to use technology-driven social media — Facebook updates and Twitter posts fly thick and fast — to bring about change,but who is a pragmatist,even befriending the bad guys as a means to an end,Manav could have been a well-rounded character. But,after a few sketchy flourishes,he also reverts to type. And the end is chaos,very far from the non-violent satyagrah that the film propounds: gun-toting hooligans and cops run around the town,ending predictably in noble deaths and lectures on morality and goodness.

This is a film whose anthem is ‘Janta Rocks’. Which sort of goes with ‘Politics Lite’,doesn’t it?

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First published on: 30-08-2013 at 03:13:25 pm

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