If good intentions were enough to make good movies, Satyagraha would be a masterpiece. Prakash Jha is one of the few directors in Bollywood who has consistently championed political cinema. His rage at the rotten state of the system has simmered through his movies for nearly three decades.
But from the National Award-winning Damul in 1984 to Satyagraha, his stories have become increasingly simplistic, star-driven and heavy-handed. Satyagraha takes its inspiration from Anna Hazare’s historic fast, which brought the central government to its knees in 2011.
Amitabh Bachchan is Daduji, an upright retired school teacher, who revolts against the corrupt government with a fast unto death. Ajay Devgn, the Arvind Kejriwal figure, is Manav, his right-hand man.
Manav starts out as a successful businessman — he is described as the rising star of the communication sector and early in the film Daduji mockingly calls him ‘the ultimate consumer’ — but Manav soon gives up his materialistic ways to follow Daduji. Kareena Kapoor Khan is the idealistic reporter Yasmin. Manoj Bajpayee, Jha’s go-to villain, is the slimy politician who stands in their way.
Jha and his co-writer Anjum Rajabali, borrow liberally from headlines. They give us Machiavellian ministers, deal-making opposition leaders, scams, self-immolating protestors.
The film tries to say so much that it ends up saying very little. Which is a shame because Satyagraha has flashes of power — in a nicely done scene, an enraged Daduji slaps the corrupt collector. Jha pushes our patriotic buttons with a remix of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram. He also gives us a peek into the politics of Satyagraha and how even the good guys take wrong calls.
Though Bachchan and Bajpayee have played the upright patriarch and heinous politician for Jha before, both give striking performances. But the impact is diluted by a plot that lurches from one event to the next without giving us anything new. Characters speak tired lines like Mamla serious ho raha hai and System sadh gaya hai. And one of the main slogans is: Janta Rocks.
Sadly, this call to our conscience doesn’t.