Satyagraha: Phorgive and Phorget!

I can say with some certainty that Prakash Jha prolly knew what he wanted to do with ‘Satyagraha’ when he started out. After all, the political shake-up is his genre. And, to an extent, the basic premise of the story works and I agree with it. However, to mix up a metaphor, it’s not so much too many chefs as too many broths that turn this movie into some kind of mulligatawny soup!

Satyagraha is about how a retired schoolteacher, Dwarka Anand (Amitabh Bachchan) is kind of forced to emerge into the limelight to fight for the rights of the common man after he loses his son Akhilesh (Indraneil Sengupta) in an accident (which we’re later shown is actually a murder.) Forceful and corrupt minister Balram Singh (Manoj Bajpayee) announces a compensation of Rs 25 lakhs which Akhilesh’s wife Sumitra (Amrita Rao) is harassed for when she goes to the collector’s office. Dwarka slaps the collector and is packed off to jail, which same is the call for the satyagraha movement, spearheaded by Akhilesh’s best buddy, industrialist Manav Raghavendra (Ajay Devgn), local rebel and ex student of Dwarka’s Arjun Singh (Arjun Rampal) and Manav’s main squeeze, journalist Yasmin Ahmed (Kareena Kapoor.)

So far, so okay. However, unlike the focussed approach that ‘Rajneeti’ took, this one draws from real life incidents such as the self-immolation case during the Mandal Commission; the candlelight vigils after a tragedy (Delhi rape case); the old man on an indeterminate hunger fast (Anna Hazare) and somewhere in here, there’s also a flyover collapse killing some of the homeless (old Hyderabad case), an engineer’s murder and cleverly engineered social media posts going viral. There’s so much of information and so many parallel contexts that you wouldn’t blame the audience if we sometimes felt we were watching glitzy news footage. Particularly as the telly media today tends to behave in a brattish, theatrical manner, more concerned with perfectly coiffed than perfectly poised…well. I rest my case!

Amitabh is dignified in his quiet grief. But tying that white dishcloth around his head and taking to the streets is just too farcical. Balram Singh was unwittingly ironic when he said “picnic ho raha hai wahan!” And whatever possessed the director to make old man Dwarka run after days of a hunger strike?! I’m talking of the climax death scene here which was pretty hackneyed.

Devgn doesn’t show the same spunk in ‘Satyagraha’ that he did in ‘Apharan’ or ‘Gangaajal’. Manav’s public confession and apology is hammed and over-the-top. Someone clearly raised the alarm and pulled the plug regarding time because the end is too abrupt – how does Manav know where to land up to nab Balram? And of course, yet another trite dialogue ensues before we can call it a day and head on home.

Never thought I’d have to say this but, I’m extremely dissatisfied with Kareena Kapoor’s performance as also the way her character has shaped up. Impeccable make-up and an inane grin is in place throughout; clearly, she is overwhelmed at being in a Prakash Jha movie, which is odd given that she already has a proven impressive body of work behind her. I’m tired of journalists being misrepresented by Bollywood! The scene with Yasmin and her editor is too contrived; no journalist speaks to an Editor in such an offhand manner and lives to tell the tale! Yasmin seems almost overwhelmed by the crowd outside the police station. Further, in the scenes where the satyagraha movement is unfolding, shouldn’t she be standing with her crew as a conscientious reporter than rubbing shoulders with Manav and Arjun as one of the main spectators? I’m also wondering how she was reading a book on the terrace in that poor light. More drama! Also, she’s entirely too hyper both as a journalist as well as a girlfriend! There was a distinct chemistry between Kapoor and Devgn in ‘Omkara’ which seems to have gone south in this movie where it’s virtually zilch.

‘Satyagraha’ clearly belongs to Manoj Bajpayee. His mannerisms, expressions, dialogue delivery, is near faultless. “Phather (father), phorgive (forgive), phorget (forget) – bravo. In the first face-off between Manav and Arjun Singh, Rampal plainly wins. Amrita Rao has done what was demanded of her, although the transition from grieving widow to someone smartly attired in jeans and cosmetics is too sudden.

I seem to have left my rose tinted glasses at home. Bajpayee is looking almost emaciated. Devgn has a thickening waist and sagging jowls. Kapoor has some very fleshy biceps. Rampal looks like he needs a good dose of shampoo – but that was probably keeping in the look of the character?!

It’s not all bad. The way Jha has captured the mob mentality is creditable; this is so true of India. I also like the liberal use of the auto rickshaws – the common man’s Mercedes. No service, no taxes – hmm, good slogan, there. Perhaps the common man could actually be inspired enough to emulate it and cause our government to do a rethink on where our monies go!

The thing is, Jha is so committed and zealous about the wrongdoings in society and politics that his passion here is almost misplaced; he has allowed it to blind him not only in regards to telling a strong story well, but also in terms of directing a “star” cast. A story such as this demands actors, not glamour pusses or rhetoric. Sticking to the backbone of the script would have made this film work. As it is, piling in everything that’s askew in the current context that’s India has made the fulcrum falter.

Music is by Salim Sulaiman, Aadesh Srivastav, Indian Ocean and Meet Bros Anjjaan. “Ras ke bhare toh re nain” is beautifully composed by Aadesh Srivastava and well sung by Shafqat Amanat Ali but it has no place in the movie, really. Title track ‘satyagraha’ just about passes muster. Err – “Janta rocks?” In Ambikapur zilla?? Jesus wept!  I do not approve of the manner in which “Raghupati raghav raja ram” has been twisted around (lyrics by Prasoon Joshi) – is nothing sacred anymore??

Cinematography by Sachin Krishna is competent. Editing by Santosh Mandal is too abrupt and misplaced. Written by Anjum Rajabali, Rutvik Oza and Jha himself, there are no witty or double-edged dialogues which one would have expected in a political satire such as this.

While I like the fact that PJ has been courteous enough to thank everybody – and I mean everybody – in the credits, the number of names that comprises the UTV team can well be the cast of another movie. Ludicrous!

*This review is written exclusively for The Film Writers Association of India.

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