Movie review: Satyagraha thought provoking, but quickly loses charm

Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha creates a new genre of politics out of an old set of plots. The movie director who produced Damul, Gangajal, Apaharan and Mrityudand, Rajneeti, Aarakshan, and Chakravyuh continues his effort to capture contemporary Indian politics, its agents of change. The old game of sociological prediction which located agency in certain classes or communities is now doomed. Politics bursts into being at unpredictable points, with an unpredictable cast of actors.

The creation of myth for the movie is the murder of the idealistic IIT student Satyendra Dubey who protested against corruption in the Highways Authority. The young man fades into oblivion as his father and friend take over the struggle. As an epic movie Satyagraha can read in myriad ways, the most obvious is as a fictional rendition of the Hazare movement. The audience plays its own games equating Kejriwal’s team and Jha’s characters.

There is the father played by Amitabh Bachchan, who blossoms into a Anna Hazare like character. The actor who skyrocketed into fame as the angry young man of cinema becomes the epitome of non-violence: The angry old man of peace. It is an interesting twist to a cinematic career.

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A still from the film, Satyagraha. Pic: satyagrahathefilm

Arvind Kejriwal is represented by a newly activist business man not averse to bribing on occasion. Shazia Ilmi and Kiran Bedi are here, as well, represented by a journalist who understands what social media is about and a policeman who finds his old corruption indigestible. We also have a lawyer who looks a tepid version of Prashant Bhushan.

But the equivalence game doesn't do justice to either reality or the movie, and quickly loses its charm. Realism is a burden that cinema finds difficult to bear, and creativity demands fiction goes beyond merely representing the facts.

Suddenly it is more than just corruption in a road project. It is corruption as a way of life and a grammar for living. The murdered man’s widow attempts to get a compensation announced by the minister. She enters the labyrinth which involves everyone else in the battle. One woman’s difficulty becomes everyone’s battle. Bachchan slaps the Deputy Collector in an un-satyagrahic move and is arrested. That one act triggers the rest of the movement. The exemplar becomes the paradigm for the struggle.

Jha shows a certain realism. The struggle is of a new kind. Corruption is elaborate and it now needs a task force, a project team to undertake the battle. One suddenly realizes the new struggles are different. One cannot stereotype them or reduce them into socialist or Naxal archetypes. One needs a new skill set around information and media to fight these political battles. IT and media alter the old game of class struggle. And Jha is shrewd enough to understand and tap into that theme.

In Satyagraha, idealism does not always lead to revolution. The soul of the activist can brew in any person, irrespective of class. Puritanism in ideology or as archetype is no longer helpful. Sometimes ambitions alchemise into idealism. For example the journalist is only interested in events that make “history”. She cannot initially believe that a little town in Bihar can be the site for the beginning of a significant movement. The businessman, in turn, entices her into covering the battle by inflating numbers in social media.

Jha also offers a similarly complicated view of the middle class, which produces the venal and the upwardly mobile and also the most impeccable of idealists. It’s the unpredictable diversity of the middle class that makes it so fascinating. The corporate entrepreneur becomes the activist and the ideologist becomes the committee bureaucrat. Jha also shows that an idealistic middle class can be sensitive to suffering among other strata. It realizes it has to create a broader language of struggle, an amalgam of dialects to be truly representational.

Jha’s Satyagraha struggles with the representation of non-violence whose ascetic rituals lack the seductive power of violence. Gun versus gun offers an easier resolution of drama and history. Non-violence does not emerge as a worldview but is represented by exemplars, in this case the patriarchal Bachchan, an old nationalist who remains the vector of change.

The one constant in a Prakash Jha film is the connivance and the agility of politicians. The politician and the bureaucrat are the two forces that the new India must fight to bring about justice and change. Contempt of the legislature or of court mark the beginning of a new era of protest.

Jha fictionalizes history by reworking the collage of reality and in doing so he produces a more powerful myth. The Hazare movement itself was finally serialized into banality and the struggle reached a quiet entropy. But in the movie, Jha synchronises the contradictions and tensions of the anti-corruption movement to create more powerful narrative. He does not produce a solution but leaves the future of the struggle open ended. Jha creates a contemporary fable combining myth and history, news and fiction to create a thought-provoking film.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.