‘Satyagraha’ is an excellent effort to capture the zeitgeist of contemporary India

Satyagraha film review
A still from Satyagraha

At the start of my interview with Prakash Jha before the release of his latest film, Satyagraha, I told him that it was my favourite of his since Gangaajal. “Really? But that was such a simple film,” he said of his 2003 film about the police in a Bihar district indulging in vigilante justice. My point, precisely. Jha’s early films — Damul, Mrityudand, Gangaajal, Apaharan — were ostensibly simple, mainstream movies about life in small towns, but had a lot to say about a rapidly-changing India and its people. Raajneeti, Aarakshan and Chakravyuh, on the other hand, were much more ambitious in scope, setting out to tackle complex political issues, but were watered down by commercial considerations and failed to either say anything substantive about the issues or tell a compelling story.

Satyagraha is, in a way, a marriage of the two styles. It sets out to tackle another major issue — people’s anger against corruption — and does cater to the demands of the Bollywood formula, but cleverly subverts it in the second half to make the points it wanted to. It’s very deftly done. Until the interval, Jha takes his time setting up the pieces, establishing where each of his primary characters is coming from and how they come together. But the paths they take are so obvious, so typically Bollywood, that you go into the break dreading another hour of good triumphing over evil, of a hackneyed plot celebrating idealism and middle-class angst (complete with peppy anthems) but never really putting that idealism to the test. Thankfully, Jha has quite a few aces up his sleeve and the last third, at least, is a fascinating examination of the thin line between a politician channeling the rage of the people and a rabble-rouser, between uncompromising idealism and ossified maximalism.
Though the film is, at first glance, about corruption, it is also a comment on young India and how it engages with politics. The era of privatisation, liberalisation and globalisation has given India’s middle-class youth an unprecedented social mobility, a chance to aspire for something better than a secure government job. For the first decade and a half of that era, this meant an opportunity to make a fortune either within the country or abroad with little thought given to the government of the day or its policies. The system, after all, was heavily skewed in their favour. The political consensus of promoting growth above all else suited them well. But it was a gilded age; the unsustainability of the model is currently playing out on our news channels. The consensus has been, if not discarded altogether, challenged, and the nation’s youth has been forced to engage with the process of building a new one that takes into account the many systemic flaws of the country that cannot be brushed under the carpet any longer. With an election around the corner, no one knows which way, if at all, this massive new constituency of young people will vote.
Jha’s stand-in for young India is Manav (Ajay Devgn), who eschews the idealism of his do-gooder friend Akhilesh (Indraneil Sengupta) and Akhilesh’s father Dwarkanath (Amitabh Bachchan) to go and found a multi-crore business empire. When Akhilesh dies and Dwarkanath, infuriated by the local bureaucracy’s refusal to sanction the compensation for his death, slaps the district magistrate and is arrested, Manav is forced to get involved and start an agitation for his release. (It’s a classic Jha device, getting his characters involved through apolitical, personal motivations.) His skills at running a company comes in handy in organising protests, and soon the agitation evolves into a movement against corruption and the slimy politicians (epitomised by the excellent Manoj Bajpayee) who run the state.
There are parallels aplenty to Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in the film; Jha is at his caustic best when talking about how that agitation lost its bearings. Manav’s movement gains traction because Dwarkanath is, like Anna, a symbol for popular outrage. It is characterised by an omnibus anger for all that’s wrong with India, an inchoate expression of rage against the machine. The politicians’ reactions are also familiar — they first ignore it, then stonewall, then try to co-opt it. Any attempts by the state government to compromise are scuttled by its corrupt coalition partners, making it look weak and ineffectual. But when it comes to taking that anger and using it to create something better, Manav and his lieutenant Arjun (Rampal) refuse to compromise, insisting on a set of demands unilaterally decided and which brooks no alterations. Eventually, the lack of progress rots the movement and people give in to their basest instincts, assuming that their leaders consent.
Creditably, Jha is never hampered by ideology, always trying to understand his characters’ motivations, what makes them good or evil. He does pander to commercial sensibilities by restricting them to black and white — Manav’s shady past business dealings come out in the open, but all it takes is one contrite apology to win him back his credibility — but does not excise nuance altogether. In an era defined by constant arguments between the State and its people, Satyagraha is an excellent effort to capture the zeitgeist of contemporary India. And, perhaps more importantly, a riveting film.