By Subhash K. Jha, IANS
Film: "Sehar"; Starring Arshad Warsi, Pankaj Kapoor, Mahima Chowdhary, Sushant Singh, Suhasini Mulay, Rajendra Gupta; Directed by Kabeer Kaushik.
Pankaj Kapoor, who narrates the harrowing true life story of a cop's heroic efforts to combat the political mafia in Uttar Pradesh, seems to have done his second surprise jig in a month.
If in "Dus" he was deliciously heroic, in "Sehar" - a dusty, crusty and often bloodthirsty look at crime and perjury in the heart of the cow belt, Kapoor turns uncharacteristically heroic at the end.
"Sehar" is a small-big film about unlikely heroes. The police force, often shown to be brutal and self-serving, gets a commendable pat on the back from first-time director Kabeer Kaushik in this biographical account of principled policeman Ajay Kumar (Arshad Warsi) fighting "absolute power" emanating from extra-constitutional guns in Uttar Pradesh.
The film's parched ambience and relentless stress on telling it like it is makes it a kind of documented drama that's still rare in Hindi cinema. The characters are all familiar quasi-stereotypes: gun-toting law-unto-oneself type of anti-socials who have been done to bludgeoning death in the cinema of Govind Nihalani and Ram Gopal Varma.
What makes the age-old combat between good and evil in "Sehar" reasonably riveting is the director's single-minded focus on telling his story to the best of his abilities, no matter what it takes.
Kaushik sets his story about the elimination of a political mafia at the start of the 1990s. This storytelling automatically provides the raconteur with opportunity to explore a kind of moral diaspora that became prevalent in the last decade of the last millennium when politicians and criminals became bed partners. This association of statesmanship and crime isn't new to cinema. And that's where "Sehar" loses its edge.
Not a single character strikes us as being uniquely designed.
Kaushik's people are haunted by their present. The debutant director constantly creates tensions that are not carried to their extreme logical conclusions.
Episodes in the life of the men in the Special Task Force (STF) are dealt with ruthless brevity. Calamities come. Calamities go...corruption goes on forever. This is how the narrative visualises and formats its socio-political message.
Besides a sense of fatigue and déjà vu, what invalidates some of the sincerity in "Sehar" is the absence of an edge to the episodes. A little boy is kidnapped by dreaded mafia man Gajraj (Sushant Singh). Within the next three sequences he's rescued and the narrative moves on.
A fidgety format and a restless rhythm, inherited from the ad world, are not quite the antidote to corruption that the cinema of social consciousness seeks. "Sehar" could've gone a lot further in the quest of answers to the question of corruption. Instead, Kaushik turns around and moves into new conundrums every time he encounters a snag. Maybe his conscience can't take the heat of the moment.
A peripheral character hits the nail on the head when he complains that the language used to explain the intricacies of the cell phone is unintelligible to the uninitiated. The politics of "Sehar" isn't really unintelligible to the average viewer. But it just doesn't make you care enough to stare hard enough.
The film lacks the motivated morality - the thrust of Sudhir Mishra's "Hazaron Khwaishen Aisi". "Sehar" is a film in search of a new dawn, and it is in a hurry to get there. The journey is by now uninteresting.
Pankaj Kapoor, playing a guy trying to unravel the mysteries of the cell phone, is as unpredictable and engrossing as ever. It could be a directorial prerogative, but Sushant Singh's don-to-death act is much too linear and stoic. Some of his brothers in arms strike us as more fleshed and bloodied.
Wish the same could be said of Mahima who has less screen space than Suhasini Mulay and makes less telling use of it.
It's Arshad Warsi's intimate intensity as the cop grappling with a situation beyond his comprehension that holds you. Far less eager to please than Manoj Bajpai's cop-in-corruption act in E. Niwas' "Shool", Warsi plays it cool.
The film unfortunately turns cold on many occasions for the lack of a forward thrust, until the train-borne climax where the cop and don finally come face to face.
It's meant to be the dawn of a new era. "Sehar" doesn't quite get there. But it's a well-intended try.
Bollywood.com Rating: 2