Madaari is about the catastrophic aftermath of a bridge collapse, but director Nishikant Kamath wants us to know that the film is about so much more. He gives us split-second visuals of the Uttarakhand floods, about farmer suicides, about train collisions, about petrol/diesel price hikes. Within five minutes, he wants to stir up our common-man anger against the many, many failures of our so-broken-it-cannot-be-fixed System. And when we hear that the Home Minister’s son has been kidnapped, it’s instantly clear that a hurt vigilante is behind this, and we are in for a reworking of Ramana or Shankar’s films or A Wednesday. Only, with much better internet access. The protagonist Nirmal (Irrfan) traipses all over northern India, he wanders across remote villages, he sits atop a sand dune in Rajasthan – and yet, he’s always connected. He’s even able to stream videos on YouTube. It’s a wonder Airtel, whose ads attempt to convince us that you could be at the bottom of the Indian Ocean and still get 4G, wasn’t approached to be a promotional partner.
The narrative keeps switching between the interaction between Nirmal and the child (Rohan, played by Vishesh Bansal), and the actions of the cops on his trail, headed by Nachiket (Jimmy Shergill, wearing a droopy moustache). There is zero urgency in the latter portions, and the film relies entirely on the boy and Nirmal, whose backstory is doled out in bits. There’s nothing new in it, but at least we see what a conflict it must be for a father to kidnap another father’s son. The pre-interval shot shows Nirmal and the boy on a train. The boy is asleep. Nirmal’s hand is on his head. The gentleness, the fatherliness of the image makes us wonder what it must have taken for this man to threaten the boy. What if someone had done this to his son?
For a change, a film of this nature doesn’t just indict the System, it points a finger at us too. Nirmal says he is the “ideal voter,” so involved in the nitty-gritty of his own life – like so many of us – that he did not make time to see the macro picture. After a bridge collapses, a man asks Nirmal if his blood isn’t boiling. Nirmal gives him a sardonic smile and says, “Who has the time?” Certainly not him. He’s got a seven-year-old boy to raise. It’s a nice touch that he’s a single parent and doesn’t seem to have much of a family other than the boy, who’s named Apurva – rare, precious. The name says everything about the relationship. And later, when Nirmal weeps in a hospital after the boy dies (but you knew that was coming, right?), he finds that others have no time for him either. He goes up to them, he wants someone to hear him out, but they give him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, a murmur of a platitude, and move on with their lives. Madaari makes us think: Should we learn to care about the people around us before expecting the country to care?
But these flourishes don’t go very far. The film is unremarkable, a by-the-numbers account of a tragedy that has played out too many times on the screen – there’s not enough finesse to make this iteration special. Madaari is filled with flat, one-note characters and stagy performances. Only Rohan and Nirmal are fleshed out, somewhat. Rohan is a privileged kid – precocious too. He knows what Stockholm syndrome is, and he’s been taught the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch.” He warns Nirmal, “Raat ko door hi sona.” Irrfan’s reaction – a combination of “kids these days…” and “you’re suspecting me of this?” and “shit, no one taught me what to say or do in such a situation” – is a thing of beauty. The actor brings to his part his trademark eccentricity, his trademark dignity. When government officials come home and offer him a cheque, he says, “Nahin chahiye compensation, beta vapas karo.” There’s not a trace of hysteria. The line is delivered in a monotone. In the hospital scene earlier (which goes on a bit too long), he showed us the tears that follow a tragedy. Now he makes us feel the numbness.
- madaari = street performer, like the guy who makes a pet monkey perform tricks
- A Wednesday = see here
- “Raat ko door hi sona.” = Don’t sleep close to me at night.
- “Nahin chahiye compensation, beta vapas karo.” = I don’t want your money, I want my son back.
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.