A bunch of recent films explore the socio-political reality of Bihar, a State by and large ignored by mainstream Hindi cinema.
BIHAR is all too often associated with lawlessness and corruption, and `badland' has become a cliche to describe this State. The latest scam to hit the already bloodied reputation of Bihar is the Comptroller and Auditor-General's report indicting legislators of siphoning off public money in the name of travel, for journeys that did not happen, to line their own pockets.
For many outside looking on with an air of unjustified superiority, Bihar symbolises a state of mind that has no use for the usual discreet veneer of democracy that hides the shocking ugliness of corruption in other parts of the country. Bihar is equated with a brazen betrayal of hope for a suffering population and `Corruption Unlimited' is the brand name of its ruling class. It is no wonder that Bollywood's glitzy cinema has ignored, if not completely avoided, this benighted State as a setting for its stories and, now, even as a viable market for its savvy products. The exceptions are so few that we can count them on the fingers of one hand. Uttar Pradesh has been the preferred terrain, be it for the rural melodramas, tales of evil Thakurs exploiting poor peasants, or the nawabi ambience of silk-draped mansions, courtly wooing and the pathetic plight of the tawaif (dancing girl).
I will argue that Bimal Roy's neo-realistic classic Do Bigha Zameen (Two Acres of Land) describes the tragedy of the peasant forced to migrate to Kolkata from his patch of land in Bihar. Roy did not specify the locale through dialect or dress in the age of black and white, but logically, the farmer who becomes a Kolkata rickshaw-puller would be from neighbouring Bihar. That film belongs to Hindi cinema's golden age, before the derogatory term `Bollywood' was coined, with all that it connotes. But now, the term and the associated state of mind, its aesthetics and politics, has been accepted; it is now an entry in the Oxford dictionary.
Contemporary Bihar is very much under public scrutiny. The recent elections, the end of Lalu Prasad's long rule and Apaharan, Prakash Jha's hard-hitting finale to his intermittently made trilogy, have all gone to bring Bihar into sharper focus. Lalu Prasad was not just fodder for great journalistic copy and spicy sound bites. A fascinated Bollywood flirted with his theatrics - Mahesh Bhatt and his daughter Pooja Bhatt were his great fans - and Govinda has done marvellous takeoffs of typical Lalu-isms. But all these were merely fun and games, part of mutual back-scratching under media glare. The so-called political films had an honest hero (either a cop or a vigilante) taking on the unequal fight against the usual suspects - corrupt politicians in cahoots with criminals and a dishonest police force. Such films took care not to specify the place if they were set in a generic small town, when they wearied of the mafia-police-politician nexus of Bombay (now Mumbai). No big film-maker was interested in exploring Bihar's notorious mix of criminalised politics and caste-driven elections.
Two Hindi films, one fairly recent and the other a few years old, had more than passing references to Bihar and its history of violence. Sudhir Mishra's Hazaron Khwaishe Aisi has a complex narrative that entwines the lives of its three protagonists during the turbulent pre- and post-Emergency times. The pragmatic wheeler-dealer stays put in Delhi cultivating his contacts, while his two closest friends - the idealist in love with revolution and his college mate who is in love with him - end up in Bihar's killing fields, running from the cops. They have taken up the gun, to fight alongside the Maoists, against the repressive state machinery and private armies of threatened landlords.
Mishra's objective is to integrate political convictions into the emotional lives of his characters and interpret the battle of ideologies through the course their lives take. Bihar was the initial laboratory of Jayaprakash Narayan's movement for people's empowerment and the Bihar we see in the film is heir to this radical aspiration taking the path of militant confrontation. Bihar is both peripheral, in terms of filmic time and space afforded by the narrative, and central to the ideological subtext. As Mishra said so eloquently about his film, it is his homage to the generation of his older brothers, to what political conviction meant to them - a legacy devalued and discarded by the younger siblings of that heroically lost generation.
Out of Ram Gopal Varma's factory came Shool, a visceral shocker in 1999, nicely poised on the cusp of the coming millennium to pierce awake the conscience of an apathetic society with the sharpness of a well-aimed spear. Here was an acolyte who had learnt his lessons well - both from his mentor Ram Gopal Varma and from the other landmark films in his chosen genre. E. Nivas, all of 23 at that time, brought the raw passion of a first-time film-maker without many of the flaws of a first film - an achievement in cliche-ridden commercial cinema. That does not mean the film did not suffer under the long shadows cast by the seminal Ardh Satya and even the shock tactics of other "political" films churned out by Bollywood. But Nivas found a voice that was distinctly his. The script was tight, eminently plausible - except for the climax - and localised with a particularity rare for mainstream films.
Nivas set his hard-hitting story in a small Bihar town. If Bihar is a byword for lawlessness, this total disregard for law and its enforcers is represented at its worst in a small town cowering under the heel of the local politician to whom murder and mayhem are a routine part of life. Even the police, from the Deputy Superintendent of Police down to the beat constable, are in the pay of Bachu Yadav (Sayaji Shinde), who has been a Member of the Legislative Assembly for 15 years. Into this den of iniquity walks the upright, uptight, short-tempered Inspector Samar Pratap Singh (Manoj Bajpai in a towering performance where rage and sensitivity are finely balanced) with wife Manjari (a deglamourised Raveena Tandon) and little daughter Sonu. The confrontation between the law upholder and the maniacal law-breaker unfolds like a series of well-placed time bombs, taking the lives of the innocent and the guilty alike. Inspector Singh has his dark side, a pigheadedness that his family puts up with. That is why his small rages are as full of impact as the big explosions. His sincerity is transparent but so is his self-righteousness that makes him a difficult person. This makes Inspector Samar Pratap Singh the rightful heir to Velinkar of Ardh Satya.
Films of this genre need a larger-than-life villain. Sayaji Shinde's Bachu Yadav is a fine blend of the eccentric and the wicked, a totally believable small-time local politician who will not be thwarted in his pursuit of big-time ambition. Bachu Yadav is engaging in a strange fashion. The setting is enhanced by the Bihari patois and idiom, best exemplified by the prodigiously talented Bajpai. Shool stabs and twists the knife which has pierced through our apathetic skin, finely balanced between understatement and dramatic flourish. Instead of the predictable climax when the hero - pushed beyond all endurance - holds his nemesis by the gun and makes a speech to the captive legislators in Patna, if Nivas had opted for a muted ending, Shool would be in a class of its own - at the top.
It is Prakash Jha who emerges as the critical chronicler of Bihar, with an insider's intimate knowledge and the despairing rage of a commentator who can see the terrible history of his State with surprising objectivity. At the height of the parallel cinema movement, Jha set out to depict the horror of bonded labour in his native land with commendable commitment. Damul went on to win prizes but was hardly seen by people. Jha plunged into the class and caste he knows intimately: the powerful Brahmin landlord Madho who thwarts the efforts of the local politician Bachcha Singh to set up a Dalit candidate against him. With the help of his brother Radho, Madho prevents the Dalits from voting, using one of them to bring a cache of illegal arms from a neighbouring district. Fearing betrayal, the rapacious duo kills the Dalit and pins down his son into a never-ending cycle of repaying a fictitious loan. This hapless young man is made to steal cattle, and a sum of Rs.50 is debited from the loan for every head of cattle. He and another like him become bonded labourers for life. Bachcha Singh, a backward caste leader, tries to incite the Dalits to leave for Punjab in search of better jobs and wages, playing his own electoral waiting game.
Into this murky picture returns Mahatmayee (Dipti Naval), a youngish widow whose land is nominally looked after by Madho. This Brahmin woman threatens to unmask her caste peers and ultimately becomes a victim of rape and murder. The Dalit young man is framed for the crime committed by Madho's men. The final horror is the slaughter of fleeing Dalits by Madho's men. Now unfolds the enmeshed labyrinth of new political alliances where, misled by Bachcha Singh, Dalits give conflicting answers to the police. Jha opts for the symbolic act of revenge by a pregnant, knife-wielding Dalit widow. This pattern - a large cast of characters, their complex relationships, caste rivalries and scheming alliances, all culminating in a cathartic act of despairing violence - has been honed over the next three films, to reach its apogee in Apaharan.
Mrityudand (Death Sentence), the first of his new trilogy, has a strong feminist thrust, powered by Madhuri Dixit's star charisma and Shabana Azmi's thespian brilliance that shines all the more luminously for being so perfectly muted.
Film festivals like Britain's Bite the Mango, aimed at showcasing South Asian cinema, lauded Mrityudand as "a virtual Molotov cocktail, exploding with the concerns of the 90s India". Jha shifts the action into the shadowed inner chambers of a landowning family and builds up the bonding between sisters-in-law against male tyranny. Madhuri Dixit is the educated young bride who has imbibed the values of fighting for justice and her own rights. Her husband is the youngest son (Ayub Khan), nursing ambitions of entering the lumber contract business with the help of the oily local politician and the wily government contractor. She is wary of the personal agendas of these new business associates because her husband turns from an amiable wimp into a violently abusive man.
Shabana Azmi, the elder bahu, has been branded barren by her impotent husband Mohan Agashe. A combination of motives makes him turn a sanyasi. He trades temporal power for spiritual power when he replaces the mysteriously slain head of the local mutt. Jha exposes the mutually beneficial alliance between Hindu priests, politicians and contractors. All through the upheavals of fortune, Om Puri bails out this household, lending them money. Jha has an acute ear for the nuances of social hierarchy. Om Puri, a shrewd businessman, represents the rise of the middle castes. The rejected `barren' wife is warmed into an affair by this social "inferior" and she becomes pregnant, to the outrage of the village. She comes into her own at last, with Madhuri's steadfast support. With a quiet but emphatic assertion of self, Shabana claims the baby in her womb as "hers". A couple of scenes are all that Azmi requires to brand her presence on a narrative rather crowded with cliches. To complete the triad of female power, there is a maid-servant who turns to prostitution to pay off her husband's debts. When the village pronounces death sentence on the adulterous lovers, Madhuri leads the charge against the accusers. Mrityudand ends with a powerful replay of Mirch Masala's iconic climax. Incidentally, this film is a favourite of Shabana Azmi and she insisted on including it in a `retro' of her films a couple of years ago in New York.
Gangajal confronts us with a moral dilemma. Jha has based the film on the infamous Bhagalpur blindings case. An upright Superintendent of Police, played by Ajay Devgun, is determined to end the goonda raj of the local politico-cum-businessman Sadhu Yadav. He knows that the entire department, from the DIG to the constable, is controlled by Sadhu and his son Sundar Yadav. Jha has a fine control over the elaborate screenplay with its huge cast of characters. The dilemma of the honest cop who has been corrupted is brought out with dramatic finesse when Devgun gives the errant subordinate Mukesh Tiwari a second chance to redeem himself. The convoluted plot is unravelled with dramatic vigour. Jha brings out the frustration of a police force that is repeatedly thwarted by Sadhu Yadav's terror tactics so that when the police blind the criminals in their custody, the tone of the subtext is approving. The expected lip-service to human rights violation is rather perfunctory. When Devgun accepts moral responsibility for what his men have done, the local population makes him their leader and yet insists that what the police did is right. Devgun's final exhortation that taking the law into your own hands can lead to fascism and the end of democracy is delivered with conviction, it is true. The element of ambiguity when depicting the "valid" reasons for police brutality is troubling because it remains at a conveniently rhetorical level, pale compared to the earlier passion and rage of the narrative.
There are no such troubling half measures in Apaharan, the most accomplished film of this trilogy. Jha now examines the prevalence of and the reasons and justification for another peculiarly Bihari industry: kidnapping for ransom. With utmost skill, Jha shows how Ajay Shastri, a jobless young man who is obsessed with entering the police force, is gradually sucked into the kidnapping `business'. Ajay has cleared his examination and his name initially appeared in the first list; since he does not belong to the "right" caste and cannot bribe, he carries out a botched kidnapping of a petty bureaucrat. Ajay's father is a righteous and much-respected professor dedicated to exposing the veniality and corruption of the administration with Gandhian zeal. The most poignant part of Apaharan is the father-son relationship, with strong echoes of Shakti, the vintage classic that best explores father-son conflict in popular Hindi cinema. It is the threat of the moneylenders to kill his father that makes Ajay take the kidnapping route - a one-time operation, he and his friends innocently assume. But the father's obduracy in the name of idealism, and rejection of any sort of compromise, questions the ambiguous nature of fatherhood where a principled pursuit of a larger cause takes place at the cost of the son's identity and existence.
There is, therefore, an element of surrogate fatherhood in Ajay's relationship with the man he chooses to serve. Tabrez Alam (a restrained Nana Patekar) is the uncrowned king of the area. His men have the monopoly over the abduction mafia and his assistant - in-chief runs the operation while ensconced in luxury at the local jail. Tabrez is a Member of the Legislative Assembly who controls a bloc of legislators propping up the coalition in power. He is adept at playing the minority card and wields lethal power but he never rants or raves. Patekar oozes a soft menace that can turn brutal in the wink of an eye. Jha makes no bones about the fact that this character is based on the Rashtriya Janata Dal legislator Mohammad Shahabuddin who was finally nabbed after defying the machinery of the entire State. Jha, in fact, stood for election (he lost) and campaigned for the comparatively clean image of Nitish Kumar. To allay the charge of anti-Muslim bias, Jha creates the powerful character of Inspector Anwar Khan (the searingly sincere Mukesh Tiwari), the only honest officer in sight. He is passionate about proving his honesty and incorruptibility, to overcome the unvoiced but persistent suspicion that dogs a Muslim in modern India.
Unlike Gangajal, Apaharan's denouement is emotionally stirring and dramatically convincing. The political scenario is authentic. The bleak future of the educated unemployed caught in this miasma of corruption and caste patronage is the question Prakash Jha presents so purposefully. Jha's constituency is the middle class, driven to despair by its own impotency in a State controlled by the political mafia. There are no easy answers. It is perhaps enough to pose the questions.