Kabeer Kaushik made an impressive debut in 2005 with the textured Lucknow-set police drama Sehar (meaning ‘dawn’), featuring Arshad Warsi in a quietly intense performance that ought to have got him many more lead roles. Kaushik’s next two films—the Bobby Deol-starrer Chamku (2008) and the trying-to-be-comic Hum, Tum aur Ghost (2010)—have been forgettable. This week, the director returns to our screens with another police drama. Anyone who’s watched Sehar would have high hopes.
But Maximum disappoints sorely.
Sehar’s 1990s Lucknow was beautifully observed, including a memorably real narrative thread about the Uttar Pradesh cops struggling to deal with mobile phone technology, then newly introduced in India. Maximum takes us to Mumbai in the 2000s, and this world is much less sharply drawn.
Like in Sehar, there is a documentary-like effort to immerse us in a time recently past, but simply having voiceovers stating that “The Mumbai of 2003 was a very different place” is not enough. Despite attempts to capture a sense of place—there are several shots on and from local trains, for instance—Maximum’s Mumbai feels generic.
Like Sehar—and like countless other Hindi films—Maximum is told from the perspective of a police officer trying to make headway in a system that’s rotten to the core. Unlike Arshad Warsi’s Ajay Kumar, though, Sonu Sood’s Pratap Pandit is no newbie cop in the city; he’s an established ‘encounter specialist’—a man who specialises in killing gangsters rather than arresting them. The film follows Pandit from his trigger-happy glory days in 2003 to his decline in 2008, the ups and downs of his personal and professional life playing out against the background of the various nexuses between builders, mafia, politicians and the media that make up contemporary Mumbai.
Several films have been made about encounter cops, using men like Daya Nayak as real-life models. With the deep informal networks that exist between Bollywood and the Mumbai police (something Maximum even gestures to in a dialogue spoken by a starlet called Urvashi), it seems in vain to hope for a perspective in which these men might emerge as anything but heroes. Whether it is the best of the lot—Shimit Amin’s Ab Tak Chhappan (2004)—or the very worst of them—Ram Gopal Varma’s recent Department (2012)—all these films share the uncritical celebration of police excesses. It comes no surprise that Maximum, too, makes its primary encounter cop a hero.
But like Nana Patekar in Ab Tak Chhappan, Sonu Sood’s Pratap Pandit finds himself locked in a self-defeating battle with another encounter specialist, an older officer under whom he once worked, but who is now intent on totting up an encounter ‘score’ higher than Pandit’s. The relationship between Pandit and this other man, Aroon Inamdar, is the first weak link in the film. It doesn’t help that Inamdar is played by Naseeruddin Shah, who brings to the role the absolute disinterest of a man who’s been given no character arc. He’s angry, he’s devious, he’s cutthroat. He just is. We’re never actually shown what is responsible for Inamdar’s hatred of Pandit—and slowly but surely, we stop wanting to find out.
But the larger problem with Maximum is that it touches on too many issues and devises too many subplots, without giving us a clear picture of any of them. It isn’t that Kaushik doesn’t understand some things about Mumbai’s realpolitik. He does. For instance, having a Marathi in charge of the party’s state level organisation and a non-Marathi controlling the Mumbai wing is something the Congress has done for decades in Maharashtra. Kaushik draws on this real-life balancing act between insiders and outsiders to create a credible plot, casting Mohan Agashe and Vinay Pathak respectively as Pradesh chief and Mumbai city chief of an unnamed political party. The insider-outsider dynamic also works to make immigrants from a particular region stick together: the cop, the journalist and the politician build an informal network that is essentially based on their being from Lucknow, and there are nice touches here—like the dialogue between Pandit and the journalist narrator Ashwin (Amit Sadh) about going to La Martiniere.
In general, the dialogues are credible and nicely done, delivering the necessary punches without unnecessary bombast. “Yeh jo police ka dhandha hai usmein bane rehna ke do hi tareeke hain, yah toh top pe raho, ya chup raho. (There are two ways to survive in the police business. Either stay at the top, or keep your mouth shut.)” says Pandit at one point.
The acting is admirably low key, though Vinay Pathak and Neha Dhupia struggle against flat, unevolving characters and sudden twists. Dhupia, cast as Pandit’s loving wife, gets her quota of domestic flirtation—certainly she is a tremendous improvement on Mahima Choudhry’s economics professor girlfriend in Sehar. Sonu Sood as Pandit turns in a memorable performance, as does the tragically underused Rajendra Gupta, who plays Pandit’s English professor father and manages to make one teary with a declamatory scene that would have made a lesser actor look ridiculous. (Couldn’t someone have given him Naseer’s role?)
But any subtlety achieved by the dialogue and the performances is undone by the film’s too-loud background music, the déjà vu-inducing plot, and the absurdly sluggish pace. Hopefully Kaushik’s next film will bring a new sehar.