Ambikapur: a fictional small-town in India. Amitabh Bachchan’s Dwarka Anand runs a school for kids, and in his introduction scene, we see him fighting with an official over inflated electricity bills. The people of Ambikapur are frustrated and helpless. Much like the rest of India.
It’s an interesting character that you agree and disagree with in turns. In a spirited debate between him and his son’s corporate honcho friend Manav (Ajay Devgn), they talk about entrepreneurship. While Dwarka calls it greed, Manav argues that greed is not a bad word, and is puzzled over his bitterness towards monetary success. Of course, one wonders in the age of social entrepreneurship, why Prakash Jha must keep things so sternly black and white.
His son Akhilesh (Indraneil Sengupta), equally idealistic, is an architect and designing a flyover. Akhilesh’s wife (Amrita Rao) buzzes around the home instructing the maid to open a pack of ‘India Gate’ rice, and picking her husband’s shirt as if he were a four-year-old, while calling out that breakfast’s ready.
The story moves forward when disaster strikes. Akhilesh dies in a road accident, and local politico Balram (Manoj Bajpayee) announces compensation to the family. But when they do the rounds of the office to collect the amount, they are met with the usual red tape, compounded by extreme corruption.
One thing leads to the other, and makes way for a satyagraha led, surprisingly, by Manav.
Co-writer and director Prakash Jha (Raajneeti, Aarakshan) makes several references to Mahatama Gandhi and fittingly so. Only this revolt is fuelled by modern technology like the mobile phone and social media. Another striking feature of this revolt is its use of humour. A deadly weapon— their humorous campaign in the beginning embarrasses the government into listening.
The revolution has the full support of the youth that flood the social media with messages dissing the government (“Shape up, or ship out”). Jha doesn’t sugarcoat the messages and lets them appear complete with several commonly used abuses.
Manav requests Yasmin (Kareena Kapoor) a journalist to cover this local revolution. She too, gets involved in the goings-on strengthening the fight even more. The film becomes more engaging as the core team of the revolution begin to have a difference of opinion.
Showcasing the side-effects of the movement, Jha also features poor families whose hopes of getting due compensation after paying a bribe are squashed. Meanwhile, Balram dismisses the revolution as a “picnic” with people dancing and singing over coffee and soft drinks. The Machiavellian arrangements between the politicians of the ruling and opposition party will repulse the viewer while exposing a common reality.
In the end, the film is pro non-violence, but also sadly non-committal. Manav advices the young to avoid violence. Instead to ‘nurture’ their anger and use it for kranti (revolution). Meaning? Like several films have earlier suggested – join the political system; change it from inside out. (Like in Mani Ratnam’s Yuva released in 2004, that shows the youth entering politics as the way ahead.)
The dialogue is articulate, superbly penned and electrifying. Background score is a bit too obvious at times, but functional. The soulful songs are a treat.
Heartfelt performances are the film’s strength. Amitabh Bachchan fits the role of the Gandhian man-of- principles character. He has played similar roles before in varying textures, but manages to add new nuance every time.
Ajay Devgn matches step, completely convincing even when his character’s arch takes an improbable turn. Kareena Kapoor is superb, though her character needed more screen-time. Arjun Rampal, though in a short role, is superb.
The scene-muncher is indisputably Manoj Bajpayee who is a delight to watch as the quasi-comical, conniving politician. It’s a bit of a caricature, but it works in articulating the hopeless corruption of this person.
There have been questions as to whether Dwarka Anand’s character is modeled after Anna Hazare and whether the satyagraha in the movie takes a leaf out of the Hazare led anti-corruption protests in India. The film is clearly inspired, but only in spirit.
The story is unique to the film, as are the other characters. Not to mention the finale, that takes a melodramatic turn. One rues the fact that the film talks of breaking shackles when Jha himself resorts to an item song and an outrageous plug for a rice brand in the film’s first half. Plus the other inconsistencies like a journalist being allowed to sit-in on a secret meeting between the protestors and the politicians.
The film has its flaws but it is successful in capturing the disgruntled, restless and enraged mood of the country, and in fact the world. You will be moved by the film, despite yourself. For that and for the masterful performances, Satyagraha is worth a watch!
Rating: Three and a half stars