Jogi: Ali Abbas Zafar’s Vivek Agnihotri-fication is complete
In a film like Jogi – the victim remains the victim, the perpetrator remains the perpetrator.
Almost exactly a decade ago, Austrian veteran director Michael Haneke spoke about the responsibility of a filmmaker while tackling real-life tragedies, and trying to mine them for their ‘entertainment’ value. In the same conversation, Haneke denounced Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), which won seven Oscars that year including Spielberg’s maiden Best Director, calling what he does in a scene building suspense about the overhead pipes releasing water or gas as ‘unspeakable’. While watching Ali Abbas Zafar’s Jogi, I wondered what Haneke would say about this. After all, the Netflix film is set around the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that took place in Delhi, in the aftermath of the assassination of India’s then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
In the last eight years, it’s been more than established that only a few types of ‘political’ films can be made in the mainstream space. Films around the Emergency, the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, films that talk about Hindu pride or events that can be tied to previous Congress regimes and/or depict India’s Muslims in bad light. One wonders why Ali Abbas Zafar is dabbling in a film with such politically sensitive material, especially after what happened to his Amazon Prime series, Tandav, only a couple of years back. And yet, the more one watches it, the clearer it becomes as to why he’s made this film. Jogi is Ali Abbas Zafar’s apology for making Tandav.
As someone with a few successful potboilers to his credit featuring Salman Khan, one wouldn’t necessarily call Zafar the most politically astute filmmaker in India. Which is why it’s baffling to see Zafar bring his simplistic touches to material that deserved to be handled with more care and responsibility.
Set around the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi in 1984 – the film follows the lives of Joginder Singh or Jogi (Diljit Dosanjh) and his family, residing in Trilokpuri (East Delhi), as they try to survive three days of widespread violence. Witnessing the riots on our screens for a second time in as many months, after last month’s Laal Singh Chaddha, Zafar’s approach invites many questions. Jogi is the kind of film, where a scene of a Sikh man cutting his own hair (to mask his identity) is interspersed with a close-up of a tear falling from the corner of his eye, with a swelling score in the background. The riot scenes fixate on the Molotov cocktails being thrown in slow-motion, and the charred skin of the many Sikh men burned alive in their shops, inside vehicles, or even on the roads. Zafar’s filmmaking is so devoid of any insight that it almost seems like the only reason behind his creative choices is to trigger and provoke an already traumatised community.
Take for example, the scene where Jogi and his father board a bus as they would on any other day, probably unaware of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh sentiment raging across the capital. In the bus, we see a group of men flaring their nostrils at Dosanjh’s character, his father and their easily identifiable turbans. They start assaulting both Jogi and his father, and when asked “Bhaisahab, humaari galti kya hai?” – the response comes – “Tu Sardar hai na? Yahi teri galti hai.” So far, so perfunctory. When Jogi and his father somehow escape the bus and reach home – they realise that his brother-in-law has been torched alive inside his shop. How Zafar deals with this piece of information tells us everything we need to know about his intent and prowess as a filmmaker. He focuses on the shock on the face of Jogi’s sister, who continues to stitch the shirt her husband said he would wear in the evening, while Jogi looks on with tears in his eyes. From hereon, the film becomes a templated “thriller” – where a group of about 100 Sikh people hide inside a Gurdwara – as the constituency’s legislator (Kumud Mishra) barks orders about how he wants to see every possible Sikh person bleed. A timeline is set for three days before the Army steps in, and the objective for the Sikhs is to survive while the local politician distributes voter lists, bearing their names and addresses.
A word for Kumud Mishra’s Tejpal Arora – who plays the role of Trilokpuri’s local councillor. A painfully one-note character, Tejpal Arora maintains he’s not a ‘bad guy’. He’s only doing it for the election ticket, he says at least thrice. It’s an archetype we’ve seen in Hindi cinema for an eternity– a politician who indulges his daughter like a typical ‘family man’ would, by helping her with her homework and playing with her. But as soon as the police officers enter his residence, he transforms into a blood-thirsty hound, dispassionately asking the cops about how many kills they’ve managed. Mishra is a first-rate actor, but even he can’t overcome the glaring limitations of Zafar and Sukhmani Sadana’s script. At its best, the film is irresponsible in how all actions are rationalised with “upar se order aaya hai”. At its worst, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to view Jogi as anti-Congress propaganda. There’s a reason why politicians of a certain era can be painted with as much villainy as possible, without the fear of nationwide boycotts, trending hashtags or FIRs.
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In a film like Jogi – the victim remains the victim, the perpetrator remains the perpetrator. A bigoted character conveniently has a change-of-heart, after Zafar is done milking a scene for suspense around will he/won’t he. There are hardly any layers to the parts or the storytelling. Zafar doesn’t seem interested in portraying a community’s trauma to arrive at a catharsis. He only wishes to provoke and mine their trauma for generic titillation. It’s evident in the way he adds a Hans Zimmer-like background score to the getaway scenes, almost like he’s attempting his own version of Argo. However, the ‘reality’ of the time-and-space in Zafar’s world feels questionable at best, deliberately dishonest at its worst. There’s an astounding track about a love affair poisoning a friendship late in the film, which is so archaic, one is forced to wonder if Zafar thinks making a film set in 1984, needs him to revive the painstaking morality of that era.
Jogi wants to believe it is a morally courageous film. It’s not. In fact, this is the kind of vicious “political” film that wants nothing to do with truth, except peddle its own agenda. The film is so content with choosing a ‘social issue’ as its subject that it takes no effort to empathise with its characters as human beings. All characters are hollow shells meant to echo the hateful perceptions around political parties and/or communities, under the garb of ‘speaking up’ for the victims. We saw something recently in Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files that mined the trauma of Kashmiri Pandits only to further a nation’s anti-Muslim sentiment. With Jogi, it would be safe to say Zafar – the once harmless director behind Salman Khan potboilers – has traversed into darker territory. It appears like the Vivek Agnihotri-fication of Ali Abbas Zafar is complete.
Tatsam Mukherjee has been working as a film journalist since 2016. He is based out of Delhi NCR.
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