India, get angry.
Protect your women, fight the filth of our corrupt system, demand better infrastructure, public safety and a more secure future. Embrace the power of social media, try peaceful candlelight vigils, stand outside a public office and refuse to leave till they give in to your demands, if that’s what you think will work. Just don't expect Prakash Jha to incite any of this zeal in you with Satyagraha.
Resident of the fictional town of Ambikapur, Dwarka Anand (Amitabh Bachchan) is a morally upright schoolteacher and the father of Akhilesh (Indraneil Sengupta), an engineer with the department of National Highways who is killed in a road accident some 15 minutes into the film.
The grieving father and Akhilesh's widow Sumitra (Amrita Rao) are promised a compensatory sum of Rs 25 lakh by minister Balram Singh (the perfectly cast Manoj Bajpai). Except the money never comes and Sumitra, who wants to set up a school with that money, ends up making endless rounds of the government offices where nothing works without a bribe. Infuriated by the workings of the system and the insult suffered by his daughter-in-law, Dwarka storms into the office himself and slaps the guy in charge. This lands him a seven-day sentence in police custody, which he insists on serving because he doesn’t want to pay his way out and presumably wants to catch up on all his newspaper reading.
In town for his friend Akhilesh’s funeral and trying to get Dwarka out is Manav (Ajay Devgn), a successful telecom businessman who we have been free to judge in earlier scenes of the movie because he swigs alcohol from a hip flask, has the greed to want to be a billionaire and conducts all his business meetings in swish nightclubs surrounded by item girls. Dwarka resents him for all that he stands for, but Manav—who lost his parents in an accident when he was young—considers him and Sumitra family.
Seeing Dwarka behind bars, stubbornly refusing the underhand monetary exchanges attempted to secure his release, Manav has a eureka moment and new plan to get the old man out: public outrage. He prints “FREE DADUJI” (that's what everyone in Ambikapur calls Dwarka) posters at a cyber café and enlists the help of college youths rounded up by Ambikapur’s self-proclaimed Robin Hood, Arjun Singh (played by Arjun Rampal, who is so downright sexy that I don't particularly care if he can act or not).
Once they get some noise going on the streets of Ambikapur and enough Likes, Retweets and Shares across social media platforms, the movement feels credible enough for Manav to call top journalist Yasmin Ahmed. She instantly dumps an exclusive interview with the Prime Minister to rush across to Ambikapur and cover the uprising herself.
So, to recap: so far we’ve covered bribes, corruption, the collapse of a flyover, protests, tear gas, water cannons and lathi charges. (A little later, we also get into a hunger strike a la Anna Hazare, but more on that in a bit.) Sounds familiar? That’s the point. And the message is clear: our country is a mess. But so is this movie. In its flying urgency to hit home and hit hard, it tries to pack in everything we’ve been outraged about in the last couple of years at once. It's too much too fast, and Satyagraha ends up missing the mark completely. Salim-Sulaiman, Aadesh Srivastava and Indian Ocean contribute to a soundtrack that races to keep up, but the movie just doesn't deliver. In fact, the only anger it incites from the audience is its dismal failure at a wake-up call of any sort, even a precious two and a half hours later.
Silver linings include Bachchan and Bajai’s performances, which are the best of the lot. Bajpai effortlessly plays a menacing, corrupt political figure, while Bachchan is powerful and restrained in his quiet fury, dealing with the tragedy of losing his son and the horrific state of affairs in the country. But, almost as though he has read the minds of the audience, even he gives up post-interval as he lies down in the middle of his hunger strike and closes his eyes, leaving the rest of the cast to handle the business of a mind-numbingly long fight against corruption and injustice — reflecting what led to the formation of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party.
We’re not faulting Jha for trying to taking on a socio-political issue and trying to make a difference. He’s had some luck with a couple of his previous films along similar lines. But despite an able cast and a potentially-solid premise, Satyagraha sadly crumbles and fades with the weight of trying too hard.