Rajkumar Santoshi is back, trying to shake awake our collective conscience. If only he’d shaken awake his storytelling skills too…
JAN 13, 2008 – WHATEVER IT IS THAT’S KEEPING KAJOL OCCUPIED during the long gaps between her films these days, it certainly isn’t laying out sumptuous meals for husband Ajay Devgan. The actor was never really one to be described as heavy, but in films like Company, there was at least something robust about him, a halfway-commanding physical presence – and that’s increasingly been replaced with a hollowed-out tiredness, as if liposuction had been performed on a man who, in fact, needed to be prescribed a daily diet of ghee and gulab jamuns. At his current rate of physical attrition, I’m afraid he’s going to end up a stick figure in a game of hangman – and I’m not sure how he’s going to summon up charm and life out of those sunken eyes in romantic films such as the upcoming U Me Aur Hum (though the just-released promo of this film directed by Devgan appears almost as anorexic, peppered with beyond-clichés about “pyaar karna” and, yawn, “pyaar nibhana”).
At the same time, I can’t think of any other star playing street-theatre actor Ashfaque (who’s rechristened Sameer Khan when he enters the movies) in Rajkumar Santoshi’s Halla Bol. At the beginning, when a breathless TV reporter announces the arrival of “the greatest action hero… the superstar,” Ashfaque shrugs off the extravagant praise by describing himself a “chhote se shehar ka mamooli sa aadmi.” Is there another leading man you could pin this label to, another contemporary star who looks as if he bucked the odds and made it despite being a nondescript bloke from a nondescript town?
But having cast the right man for the right part, Santoshi goes terribly wrong in making his hero shoulder that most dreaded of actorly burdens – that of becoming a mouthpiece for the screenplay’s conceits. Devgan has a few nice, unguarded moments – like when he sees himself on screen for the first time and tells his girlfriend Sneha (Vidya Balan) that there seems to be some sort of projection problem, and she points out that it’s just his eyes that are misting over with emotion. But most other times, his brief is to highlight, make bold, underline and italicise such messagey passages as the one where he refuses to play the minority card – he’s being targeted by Hindus; Muslim politicians advise him to allege that he’s being persecuted due to his religious beliefs – because he lives in a country where a Muslim was President and where a Sikh is Prime Minister. It may not be the best of performances, but it’s to Devgan’s credit that he doesn’t end up looking ridiculous.
Unfortunately, a lot of Halla Bol does – and in ways it may not have, a couple of decades ago. The film gets going with a sort-of reenactment of the Jessica Lal tragedy; two rich kids gun down a girl in a nightclub – she won’t encourage their advances – and walk out coolly, in the direct line of sight of every eye in the vicinity, including Ashfaque’s. He subsequently confesses to the cops that he didn’t see a thing, and soon after, he’s reciting thunderous “Zulm ke khilaaf awaaz uthani padegi” dialogue in front of the camera, that it’s time to raise your voice against injustice. If, at this juncture, you’re tut-tutting that, alas, this fiery hero in reel life is anything but that in real life, you’d probably match the profile of the target audience for this film – the good people who’ll await with nail-biting ardour the reawakening of Ashfaque’s dormant conscience, as detailed through the rest of the film.
But after a point, I was bored beyond belief – though I’m almost afraid to say this, because I’m sure there will be those ready to pounce on this confession, claiming that this is a message movie, so it has to be detailed with such broad brush-strokes to reach the widest possible audience. And this makes me wonder: Is cinema a medium for a story or a sermon? The Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.” But are things different in an Indian context? Do we expect make-believe characters in make-believe stories to accomplish in three hours what our moral science or civics teachers – or even our parents – couldn’t in all our years of growing up? In between cell phones going off in the dark, babies bawling, restless children scampering about the aisles, frontbenchers hooting, in between the crunch of popcorn and the fizz of soda, do we seek entertainment as well as evangelism?
But even if you agree – even if you view as a function of cinema the dispensing of bitter, little pills in sugarcoated shells – I doubt you’d use Halla Bol as a case study to further this notion, because this film is all medicine. I know a lot of people didn’t care for Santoshi’s Lajja, but I found it interesting that a film named its characters Vaidehi and Maithili and Janki and Ramdulari – victims of our male-dominated society, all – in order to explore what it is to be a woman in the land of Sita. The way Santoshi structured the film, with vignettes woven around these fascinating women, he was able to pack in a lot of familiar masala elements into each segment, which kept the film from becoming an endless didactic tirade. In other words, even if I didn’t buy into (or perhaps even care for) the overarching points about sisterhood Santoshi was making, the individual dilemmas, the little dramatic knots in each of these episodes kept me hooked. And this is the model that be-the-change-you-want-to-see films like Rang De Basanti (as well as its more straightforward, formula-film antecedents like Arjun or perhaps even Dacait) followed, giving you characters you cared about in stories that kept you interested, knocking you flat with emotional impact first, educational import only later.
In Halla Bol, however, Santoshi has a point to hammer home and he goes after this goal with such dedication and such conviction, he refuses to consider that his passion about this issue may not be all that contagious, that he may have to throw a few scraps in the direction of those of us looking for other hooks to hold on to. Santoshi is a crusader here, and you catch only occasional glimpses of the gifted storyteller that he is – that he was as recently as Pukar or Khakee. Early on, Santoshi stages a scene where Ashfaque reveals that the details in his biography – about his dirt-poor childhood, when he had no money and had to study under streetlamps – aren’t true, and when his biographer asks him what the truth is, he replies, “Sach woh check hai jo aapko mila,” that money is the only truth. That’s the kind of whiplash line no one writes anymore in this multiplex age, where everyone tries to “keep it real.” And that’s what makes Santoshi valuable; among directors trying out increasingly newer ways to tell stories, he’s one of the few who knows how to reassure us with rhythms from long ago.
I doubt another filmmaker would have been interested in staging the lovely bit of street theatre that Santoshi does here – again with lines filled with rhymes and other forms of deliberate artifice that are quite rare on screen these days. This staging occurs during a long – and rather ungainly – flashback to Ashfaque’s small-town roots, and Santoshi finds interesting ways to highlight the wholesomeness that still exists, apparently, outside our rotting, big cities. We discover that Ashfaque’s parents (played by Sulabha Arya and the numerologically spiffed-up Aanjjan Srivastav) named their son after the freedom fighter Ashfaqullah Khan, and that this Muslim boy has perhaps learnt a few lessons from the Hindu legend of Raja Harischandra, which appears to be a favourite with his Sikh mentor Sidhu (Pankaj Kapur). When Sneha asks him to choose between her and his dreams of becoming an actor, he chooses the latter – not because he doesn’t love her, but because he can’t lie to her. It’s a classic, old-fashioned morality-tale-moment being spun before our eyes.
But more often than not, this is a flashback – and a film – of events, not individuals. Santoshi chooses to lay out things from a bird’s-eye point of view, instead of opening them out through his characters – many of whom we barely register as people. We are told that Ashfaque and Sneha are in love, and you may wonder: it’s nice that no fuss is made about their religious differences, but how did they fall in love? We are told that Sidhu was once a dacoit in the Chambal, and you may wonder: but how did he make this transition to do-gooder through street theatre? All the back stories are dispensed with through cursory snatches of dialogue, and while it’s not always possible for a film to flesh out every single character, the unfortunate result here is that Sneha and Sidhu and everyone except Ashfaque remain just beyond our grasp. They aren’t fully-formed characters so much as pawns in the screenplay.
Sneha exists for the sole purpose of prickling Ashfaque’s conscience, and Vidya Balan has an understandably tough time trying to make us care about her. She has to deliver gassy lines such as the one where she lays bare Ashfaque’s egotism by observing that he’s begun to use “I” a lot in his sentences, and you cannot help feeling sorry for Balan for having to summon up a meaningful look to go with this stern disapproval of a personal pronoun. (This will, however, be a movie the actress will go down in history for, considering she’s possibly the first Hindi film heroine to refer to her husband’s low hangers.) And while not peddling righteous indignation, the characters come at us with moral indignation. After his protégé becomes a star, Sidhu approaches him with news about the rape of a Dalit woman by an “MLA ka ladka,” and wants Ashfaque to join his old street-theatre buddies in creating awareness about this crime. Ashfaque says he doesn’t have the time, and Sidhu shoots back a look of contempt that all but burns him down to a cinder – but no one, surely, is naïve enough to think that a superstar-actor can dole out dates at whim.
But that’s how Santoshi loads the dice against Ashfaque – through these characters, and through a long, finger-wagging introduction sequence that tells us that (a) he’s the kind of insecure star who asks for a co-star’s scenes to be truncated, (b) he’s the kind of insensitive star who’ll brush aside a respected director who’s been working on a dream script for 20 years, (c) he’s not above sleeping with women who ask him for a role in his films, (d) he won’t clear his schedule to see his only son on stage for the first time in a school play, and (e) he’ll even endorse Bhalu Chaap Kala Dantmanjan if it’ll bring him bucks. If I’ve made this sound like a listing exercise, that’s what it is in the film – a series of black marks indicating a man so depraved, so lost, the only way henceforth is up. Dev Anand played a similar character in the moving Tere Mere Sapne, a small-town doctor who loses his way in the big city before finding redemption, but where that film eased us into his situation, this one merely pins labels on its hero and asks us to care.
Halla Bol might have still worked if Santoshi had strung together a series of powerful sequences – manipulating us this way and that so we react to the film in a solely sensory manner, without stopping to think – but he glosses over even the obvious bits of dramatic fodder, the lightning rods for emotion that he’d have once seized with a gleeful laugh and exploited to the maximum. During the flashback, Sidhu gives Ashfaque a tiny trophy that’s his – it is the first award that Sidhu got – and I thought Santoshi would find a way to milk this moment for all its worth later on, when he cuts back to the present and we see Ashfaque clutching his latest prize in the trophy room at his house. I thought we’d be invited to sniffle at the sight of this new trophy in relation to the older one, the one that Sidhu gave him – now a sad, neglected, cobwebbed Rosebud among the endless rows of bigger, shiner, silver-jubilee awards. I mean, if you’re going all out, why not go all out?
But that moment just flits by, as does another, and another – and by the time Ashfaque’s son is admitted in a hospital, and we see that the nurse on duty is chilling out with a copy of Cine Blitz (how callous! how callous!), I lost all hope that Halla Bol would amount to anything more than a Pankaj Kapur showcase. That, thankfully, the film certainly is, especially when the camera holds the actor in a worshipful mid-gaze – as if it daren’t look away from this juicy a performance – when he’s reciting the tale of Raja Harischandra in stentorian tones. When he gets to the part about the king being separated from his wife and son, his eyes fill with tears and the voice drops a couple of notches; it’s the only time in Halla Bol you’ll find yourself dropping your guard and entering the film, though Kapur finds ways to entertain himself (and us) even when asked to save Ashfaque by driving a lorry and deflecting point-blank bullets with nothing more than a stony look. If I’d not been struck dumb with the sheer gall of the scene (and the performance), I’d have surely reached out to the screen and extended a napkin so he could wipe off the bits of scenery still stuck to the corners of his lips.
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