Directed - Govind Nihalani
Cast: - Naseerduddin Shah, Om Puri, Smita Patil, Amrish Puri Winner of 6 Filmfare awards (it meant something back then)
Twenty minutes into the movie, and most of my friends started flinching in their seats, “Is that how a, ‘typical’ Indian art film is supposed to look and feel?” one of them said. I didn’t have an answer, how, an art film is supposed to look, but proposed to let the movie go on; since this was not the first time I had been screening films (originals) in our little flat here in Delhi, which usually followed up with some healthy discussion on the movies. When the film finally ended, most people in the small cramped room, didn’t say a word - but the very same friend who questioned the legitimacy of art, and laughed how Om Puri looked in the film, said in a very grave tone voice, “Nothing much has changed ever since”, true as he said - and he was absolutely right in his cumulative evaluation of the film- Nothing much has changed since the 80s when the film was released, and even today, the society functions large on crushing the morale and integrity of the weak, and succeeding on the plight and exploitation of the poor, and this very theme, layers of meaning and questions form the core of this remarkable film.
The films we seldom see on screen are very closely related with the realities of our lives, which most people tend to overlook. Personal problems are more important than the problem of others, which is valid, but one should not turn blind eye on matter other then our own. No wonder we see things in a long shot, but the day something happens to our sons, daughters, wives, husbands, fathers, grand fathers, everything moves in an intricate tight close-up. This film does the very same, to slowly bind you into a tighter shot, from the film’s opening which is an interplay of close-up, and moves around the stoic face of Bhiku Lahanya( Om Puri) to the final freeze-frame of the film, where Public Prosecutor Dushane (Amrish Puri) and Advocate Bhaskar Kulkarni (Naseerduin Shah) have a very important conversation, which in two-three minutes of screen time, summarizes the socio-political history of our society, and show the deep-black-hole which is still inflicting us.
The film begins where most Hindi films would have ended or used as a tool within their narrative fulcrum to seek revenge, vengeance or simply ponder about mindless actions. Bhiku Lahanya (Om Puri), an Adivassi, has been convicted for the murder of his wife (Smita Patil) seen in the film in fragments, and beautiful as ever, and Advocate Bhaskar Kulkarni (Nasseruddin Shah) is defending him on behalf of the state, that provides lawyers to people who cannot afford the fees. Prosecutor Dushane (Amrish Puri) who, though from the social backward caste has rose to prominence as a Senior- Respected- Public Prosecutor, and he is standing right against Bhaskar Kulkarani who is defending a case for the first time, and who also happened to be the son of a prominent lawyer under whom Dushanae had worked and learned the nuances of the craft.
Each of the central character in the story holds and stands on their will and testament of morale - Bhiku Lahanya never speaks through the course of the film, the only time he ever really shows an emotion is when he lets out a cry, howl of helplessness in a very important and pivotal scene in the film. Bhaskar Kulkarani though portrayed as a rather clumsy and coward a number of times, holds on the principle of defending his client and standing for them, irrespective for what may come to him, by the end of the film, a major and an important character development and trace one sees in him, and Prosecutor Dushanbe irrespective for all his care and concerned for Bhaskar does not flinch and inch from his own idioms and principles regarding social changes and jurisdiction for him is a game of evidence and accidents.
Every joint (film) has a hinge (main character) which flows in a certain pace and time (narrative), and for this particular film the core narrative revolves and moves around the young advocate Bhaskar, played brilliantly by Naseerdudin Shah, simply because he brings in the naïve clumsiness one usually has when starting fresh on any project, and at the same time, the zeal and enthusiasm for change (young blood) is superbly reflected in the way the character has grown and reflected in the film. Since this is Bhaskar’s first case as an advocate, he does not leave any stone unturned and moves around everywhere on his indispensable bicycle to really form and solve the bits and pieces of the case. Incidentally from the very first, we as an audience are aware, how Bhiku Lahanya has not committed the murder, especially after details regarding the exploitation of the ‘Adivassis’ are seen and heard as the film gradually progresses, and the bits and pieces of information form the overall condition - socially and politically are witnessed.
Govind Nihlani has always worked with an existing novel, play, story; in this case by Vijay Tendulkar, but though the pre-occupation of the text has always been presented in the films, but at the same time his narrative is based or rather he as a filmmaker, weaves a certain alignment of formalism as barracks around which the core themes are grounded. It’s this balance of form and content which gives this film its sheer powerful energy; it functions as the engine of the film and gives the film its major horsepower to run: The trial session, investigation, the procedure, everything is not laid out in how a typical Hindi film session would work. He plays around and goes on details of a court procedure, this is the first Indian films I have seen; where the court procedure really feels like one - not many people sitting in the crowd, without the clichéd order-order, and the same recorded dialogues and procedures of thousand of Hindi films - which remarkably have been more often than not, based on similar themes or even more profound; but lacked the vision and the individuality and creative force of a creator to shape any of them. And rather is driven by a star, market or a certain genres typical to our Cinema.
Bhaskar Kulkarni rides around with his bicycle, which forms a close bond not only with the central character, but with the audience too, I for one, really formed an intimate connection with the humble bicycle, it just reminded me of a time and era long gone. And most of the time his ride forms a certain ritual, a pattern, whether he visits the social worker, who quips about revolution, the editor of a local newspaper, or meeting Bhiku Lahanya parents. Even meeting Bhiku Lahanya and asking him to speak really forms a collective dimension of narrative realism, since it’s not only about dealing with relevant powerful message seeking socio-political topics which makes a film profound - it’s how you build the foundation of each film. This film too is built on certain parameters of ritual and repetition; every card session in the film amongst the - Prosecutor, Politician, Doctor, head of Police and Contractor becomes a play of triviality of truth and deficit, between the real and façade.
Every word spoken, every laughter, every card thrown on the table echoes and mirrors thousand countless situation which exist as an unison between such group of men - whose goal to protect, serve, and their oath of truth flows down the drain when each of them take their respective roles and stand in their own temples of judgment. And finally it’s not anyone to blame, after all, it’s a long tradition of exploitation. Bhaskar search for the truth, his confusion, his anxieties is really shown in an amazing sequence shot which moves at such a beautiful pace of a song playing on the radio(digetic), one realizes how much the importance the whole case has got for him. This is one of the most non-dramatic powerful sublime moments in the film, away from the horror, the message, and the power and it really highlights the power and balance of mise-en-scene which Govind Nihlani weaves masterfully in the film.
The film can never be complete without mentioning the remarkable performance by Om Puri (Bhiku Lahanaya), just to emote without saying a word is a remarkable feat in itself. And he does it with remarkable composure, whether his surreal dream of his dead wife, his tryst with helplessness - seeing his wife being raped is so well portrayed, that one cannot help wonder how such a great actor has come down to doing all but mindless comedy roles. Govind Nihalani too has long moved away from such films into more masala-mainstream films to satisfy the orgy of mass audience. Perhaps, he does not believe any more in the power of questioning, searching, provoking, forming, creating, but giving or selling himself to the audience.
The film carries a powerful message, it shows and highlights very hair rising and throat choking moments. It plays and moves with the interplay of lights, and every block of movement within the space is Govind Nihalani’s attribute as a master filmmaker, but irrespective of carrying around with so much power, message, and a dire critique of the society we live in, it’s the small movements, gestures, moments, that make this a film a mirror which reverberates the world we live in. The court procedure, the card session, the bicycle rides, the naïve passion, the rigid society framework, the stoic weakling, and its ritual and repetitions that make this film even closer to the world and people us meet and events we read about. The characters in the films are reflection of our own lot, free from clichés, stereotypes and free from obligation, except that of, the repetition and the ontological framework of our very own kind: The way we are, and the way we shall be, come heaven or hell.
- This is a re-post, as the review which was posted earlier, got deleted due to some technical reasons.