Things happen so easily in Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha. The story is about the efforts of an Anna Hazare-like elder (Daduji, played by Amitabh Bachchan) to tackle systemic corruption in a small town named Ambikapur, and at one point, a formerly corrupt policeman steps up to a microphone and declares he’s turning over a new leaf. At another point, an industrialist (Maanav, played by Ajay Devgn) writes away his crores because he doesn’t want to be labeled a corrupt capitalist. Does the policeman feel a twinge of fear that his former bosses – all-powerful politicians – may unleash their fury on him and his family? Does Maanav hesitate, just for a minute, before giving up everything he’s worked for all his life? Or take the student leader Arjun (Arjun Rampal), who becomes part of Daduji’s movement. What does he do elsewhere? Does he have friends, family? Does he down the day’s frustrations with a drink or two? More importantly, why does he affiliate himself with Daduji’s cause?
The answer, of course, is that the screenplay asks him to. Over the years, Jha has become the kind of filmmaker who gathers huge stars and a ripped-from-the-headlines premise and does little else. The scenes are loose. Characters aren’t developed – their traits, instead, are marked out for us with a helpful highlighter. (An underling approaches the journalist played by Kareena Kapoor with a sleazy story and she refuses to look at it. Ergo, she’s a principled newsperson, who won’t do sensationalism.) Other characters – like a doha-spouting mendicant named Transformer Baba – are introduced with a great flourish, but then they have nothing to do, nowhere to go. And despite a flabby running time of 150-odd minutes, Jha seems to be in a tearing hurry. Maanav hacks into a government computer and finds all the information he needs in a matter of minutes. Later, he frets that Daduji is missing – the next second, he’s exactly where Daduji is. Who can take any of this seriously?
The tragedy is that we want to take this seriously. We want filmmakers to grapple with headlines. We want inquiries into (and reflections on) what’s happening around us. What we don’t want is lazy manipulation, with the soundtrack bursting into strains of Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram every time we’re meant to register something profound. (Jha goes all out to paint Daduji as the new Gandhi. We see him walk with support from two young women, and he even exclaims ‘Hey Ram!’) The refrain Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram finds its way into a song as well, and it’s staged so indifferently that we have wonder why Jha insists on following the commercial Hindi-film model when his heart is so clearly not in it. This song comes about when people are at a low point, and you only have to think back to O Paalanhaare from Lagaan to see how such a song sequence should be filmed. There, the music was a balm on our frayed nerves – we were as involved in the plight of the characters as they were themselves. Here, we reach for a non-existent fast-forward button.
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