I only see the occasional mainstream Bollywood film on release, but I try to keep up with how the industry is changing so I joined four other brave souls for a lunchtime screening of the latest film to star the ‘Big B’, Amitabh Bachchan. I knew little about the director Prakash Jha except that he is an industry veteran. It was only afterwards that I realised that he had made similar films in the past, including Raajneeti (2010) which has a narrative comprising very similar elements to Satyagraha – and three key stars are common to both films. So, we are dealing here with familiar genre material for mainstream Hindi cinema: corruption in business, politics and the police force and a specific family situation involving possible betrayals of principle etc. My real interest is in whether the material is being presented in a different way, engaging its audiences differently etc. In particular, I’m interested in possible indications that ‘new’ Bollywood or ‘Independent Indian Cinema’ is having an impact on the mainstream.
Satyagraha is being promoted as a ‘political thriller’ that is ‘torn from the headlines’, enabling some reviewers to claim that this is a ‘wake-up call for the nation’ etc. I think that this is unlikely – but the film kept me entertained for its 152 minutes and early reports suggest that it is a hit in India (on 2,400 to 2,500 screens). The title refers to the practice of non-violent activism or resistance to bad government and specifically to the campaigns led by Gandhi. The Gandhi figure in the film is a retired headmaster played by Amitabh Bachchan who is trying to build a school for the poor children in his part of town in a district of Madhya Pradesh in North Central India – the literal geographical ‘heart of India’ (most of the film seems to have been shot around Bhopal). In one of those beloved Hindi cinema conventions, Daduji has a son, a brilliant civil engineer involved in developing the region with new roads. In a prologue we see the son about to be married and welcoming back his childhood friend, an orphan who has been more or less adopted by Daduji’s family. This is Manav played by Ajay Devgn – a very different ‘young man’ (the actor is in his 40s) who has chosen to become an unscrupulous entrepreneur in the telecoms industry. Manav is not very welcome now in Daduji’s household, but he returns when a tragedy occurs. The tragedy and its aftermath also attracts a crusading TV journalist played by Kareena Kapoor. For the media, the story begins when Daduji, finally snapping after the latest insult to poor people seeking their rights, slaps the local government official and ends up in the local cells. Manav with the help of one of Daduji’s former pupils (Arjun Rampal) organises a local campaign to free the old man.
Manav’s prowess with mobile phone technology and social media use means that the campaign takes off very rapidly. This aspect of the film can be seen as both a contemporary reference and as an attempt to exploit some of the innovations of earlier similar films that feature social media such as Who Killed Jessica?. It’s also part of the film’s attempt to attract younger viewers with an element of youth rebellion like that in Rang De Basanti. But of course, this is Bollywood – all the technology works instantly on huge screens with perfect pictures etc. In fact there is an enormous amount of product placement which seems rather incongruous when the main thrust of the story at least moves away from the metros and artificiality of most Bollywood towards the poorest part of India. But then, this is billed as a ‘middle-class revolution’, requiring the audience to negotiate that knotty problem around what ‘middle-class’ actually means in modern India. I would say that all the main participants are relatively privileged, but to be fair to the script, the real story is about how this group attempts to take on leadership of the ‘ordinary people’ – and finds it quite difficult to maintain a Gandhian consistency of action. The script brings in questions of communalism as well as corruption and hypocrisy.
This isn’t a masala film if by that term we mean a mixture of romance, action, adventure and comedy. It sticks largely to the central narrative which commentators have suggested draws heavily on the ‘real world’ story of the campaigner Anna Hazare – especially as a hunger strike is included. The songs in the film are mainly integrated into the storyline – in the muted romance moments and as part of the large public events. This means that the traditional appeals to the audience, beyond the central social issue, come from the ‘large’ performances by the film’s stars. Amitabh Bachchan pulls out all the stops and is certainly worth watching. Kareena Kapoor struck me as miscast – but then casting a female Bollywood star as a glamorous reporter is now so clichéd in films like this that the role seems impossible. The most intriguing casting is that of the chief villain, the local politico played by Manoj Bajpai who was so good as the gangster leader in Gangs of Wasseypur. Here he gives a highly coloured performance, complete with what looks like a jet-black wig. He even has a comedy henchman. Having said that, in a mainstream popular feature, the villain needs to be distinctive and he fulfils the role well.
I don’t know whether the film will prove to be an example of how traditional Bollywood can hold on to its ‘all-India’ audience while it tries to please the younger, better-educated metro cinemagoers with more radical stories. Bollywood Trade suggests that its prime audience seems to be in those regions outside the metros – in Central India. Meanwhile Sharukh Khan in Chennai Express cleans up across the Hindi cinema universe. Perhaps I’ll try to catch it.
Here’s the title song for Satyagraha: