It is hard to make a political film and get away with it in a country like ours. But two films that released back to back in the last two weeks have dared to tread that path. Of course, they have got past the censors because, after all, all the characters and incidents in these films are “fictitious”. While one comes from the camp of Prakash Jha, who in the past has delivered successful socially relevant dramas like Damul, Gangaajal and Apaharan, the other comes from the much smaller banner of Shoojit Sircar, whose Vicky Donor was one of the most acclaimed films of last year. Jha’s Satyagraha boasts a superstar cast with Amitabh Bachchan, Ajay Devgn, Manoj Bajpai, Arjun Rampal, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Amrita Rao. And Sircar takes what some would call a risk by casting an actor whom the critics have written off and gone as far as calling “a piece of wood” and pairing him with another who cannot even speak Hindi in his Madras Cafe. And, surprisingly, given all these limitations, Sircar is the one who gets it right this time.
Based on the ethnic conflict in Jaffna, starting from the withdrawal of the Indian Peacekeeping Force from Sri Lanka and culiminating in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Madras Cafe works much better than Jha’s colossus, thanks to its tight script, penned by Somnath Dey, Shubhendu Bhattacharya and Juhi Chaturvedi. Jha’s political-romantic-family-drama has more than a few shades of the Anna Hazare breakout that shook the country two years ago. An upright ex-principal (played by Bachchan) gets fed up of the red tape and corruption in the system that he shows his disapproval by slapping the district collector across his face. A spectacular scene in the otherwise shabby film, thanks to Amitabh Bachchan’s honest portrayal of Dwarka Anand.
The rest of the Satyagraha company is Manav Raghavendra, the “young” rising star of the telecom industry (played by 44-year-old Ajay Devgn); Arjun, the good-hearted “youth” leader and wannabe neta (40-year-old Arjun Rampal); the feiry journalist Yasmin (Kareena Kapoor Khan), whose kohl and blowdried hair withstands any lathi charge or water cannon; and the mourning wife of a murdered government engineer Sumitra (Amrita Rao), who takes care that her make-up and cotton saris are in place even at her husband’s funeral.
The film is based on the outrage of the common man against the deep-rooted corruption in the system and tries to blend in the role of the youth and the way they use social media to make their voices heard. Satyagraha borrows its premise from news headlines and bring in real-life incidents like the Satyendra Dubey murder case, Anna Hazare movement and the 2G scam, but fails miserably due to lack of attention to detail. Yasmin, a leading journalist, doesn’t have a problem with her photograph gracing the posters of a new political party and continues reporting on field all the time with a wide smile on her face. Ever heard of journalistic ethics or unbiased reporting, Mr Jha? The best of the lot is the hugely talented Manoj Bajpai who plays Balram Singh, the shrewd politician, who wants to retain his power by hook or by crook.
Satyagraha is the classic example of how even a whole gang of talented actors cannot save a film which is badly written. Jha tries to infuse into the shoddy screenplay a few masala elements like an item song danced to by a foreigner and a badly placed love song. It beats us how Jha got actors like Devgn and Bachchan to lip-sync to songs like Janta Rocks and utter dialogues like “Woh bahut bahadur tha, Lal Bahadur!”.
Sircar’s Madras Cafe, however, scores on every point that Satyagraha falters. John Abraham, who plays Army agent Vikram Singh, posted in Jaffna by the R&AW, is not your Agent Tiger (from Ek Tha Tiger) or Agent Vinod (from Sriram Raghavan’s Saif Ali Khan starrer with the same name). Vikram has no superhero abilities, he fights alongside other officers using the same kind of weapons and gets kidnapped and brutally beaten up by the enemies halfway into the movie. There is no dialgouebaazi, no sloppy romantic scenes nor is there even a hinted affair with the stunning English-speaking British Asian journalist played by Nargis Fakhri. The characters are all very human, they have their flaws, they do not play to the galleries and are mere elements to take the big hero–the story–forward.
Although the film starts slowly explaining the politics of the Tamil ethnic war, by the the second half it turns into an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Right from the beginning, we know that the “Ex-PM” will be assasinated, but the beauty of Madras Cafe lies in its second half in which a detailed and believable account of events unfold onscreen, the climax being the high point.
However, Madras Cafe is far from perfect. It has its share of factual errors (after all it is all fictitious remember); there is some confusion in the first half and all through the movie Fakhri’s Jaya speaks to Abraham’s Vikram in English and he chooses to reply in Hindi. Sircar has also used a very flawed framing device–the story is narrated to a priest by a drunk, bearded Abraham and by the end of the film you find him mourning over the “ex-PM’s” death more than his wife’s. But what stands out in the film is the honest effort put in by every one in the cast and crew. Sircar makes sure that Abraham, who is sometimes described as a victim of his good looks, is not noticed for his bare chest or bulging muscles. He is instead, probably for the first time in his career, remembered for the character he plays. Even Fakhri, who was almost unbearable because of her antics in her debut film Rockstar, is convincing as the journalist. Again, Sircar makes sure that she wears minimal make-up, the most basic clothes and speaks in a language she is comfortable in. Sircar also introduces talented actors like Prakash Belawadi and Ajay Rathnam to Bollywood.
Sircar has proved that it does not take a lot to pull off a decent Bollywood film, provided there is a sincerely crafted story at its centre. While Jha continues to try and fit in as many actors into his next film’s poster, we hope there are more filmmakers like Sircar who aims at telling a good story than making some crores at the box office.
Film: Madras Cafe
Director: Shoojit Sircar
Cast: John Abraham, Nargis Fakhri, Raashi Khanna
Director: Prakash Jha
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Ajay Devgn, Manoj Bajpai, Arjun Rampal, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Amrita Rao