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Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha is a political film that, for all its well-meaning bluster, neither stings nor scalds. It fails to hit the core of the truth that it seeks.
The Apaharan-Raajneeti-Aarakshan formula is intact here. Director and writer Jha takes up a topical socio-political issue and forges a drama designed to deliver a message of import.

Unfortunately, Satyagraha barely skims the surface of a complex theme, leaving many a crucial question unanswered. As a result, it can hardly be expected to shake a vast nation and its somnolent rulers out of their torpor.

Satyagraha spares no effort to reflect the rising tide of public anger against a creaking, corrupt and callous system that treats citizens of the country like a load of dirt. The script draws inspiration from several real-life scams and political shenanigans, and constructs a predictable narrative that underlines the undeniable might of social media. The 2G scam, mining policy flip-flops, the ills of coalition politics, underhand deals between fixers and ministers, and the growing role of Twitter and Facebook in driving the popular ire against corruption and poor governance are all alluded to. All this is socially relevant all right, but strictly from the point of view of the plot, it amounts to a bit of overkill.

The film raises all the right issues, but it tends to not only too many loose cards on the table but also to employ the wrong tools to get its point across. The righteous indignation that Satyagraha articulates never quite assumes the shape of a full-fledged conflagration that can sock the audience in the face.

On the soundtrack, we often hear “Ambikapur is burning”. We see that reality only in the form of slogan-shouting protestors, sermonizing activists haranguing an unresponsive administration and an aimless bunch of patrolling policemen. The fire that is supposed to be raging in the fictional upcountry district that the film is set in does not exactly leap into the sky and turn into genuine, palpable ire.

A spirited fightback by an upright and idealistic retired school principal Dwarka Anand (Amitabh Bachchan) and the transformation of a telecom czar Manav Raghavendra (Ajay Devgn) into an aggressive people’s leader constitute the two principal strands of the Satyagraha narrative. Neither develops into a full-bodied battle of attrition that can hold a two-and-a-half-hour film together.

A problem that has beset Jha’s recent films is back to haunt Satyagraha as well. The principal characters do not converse like you and me. They make speeches from a rostrum. When they are not letting out hot air from a pedestal, they deliver grand statements of intent to each other and everyone within earshot. It is an approach that is better suited to street theatre than to the big screen.

This is not to say that Satyagraha is an unduly strident film that raves and rants about how wrong things are with Indian democracy.

In fact, Jha shows flashes of characteristic brilliance in the manner that he handles the film’s quieter moments. A couple of scenes stand out. A shocked-into-silence Dwarka Anand is dignity personified as he demonstrates his grief at the accidental death of his engineer-son (Indraneil Sengupta). Amitabh Bachchan, who is as much in control here as he has ever been, packs more emotion into that single moment of tragic stillness than he is allowed to do in the reams of dialogue that he delivers. In another sequence, driven journo Yasmin Ahmed (Kareena Kapoor) confronts the briefly discredited Manav Raghavendra when he returns from the cold to reclaim his place in the Ambikapur sun. Words, both angry and contrite, are exchanged, but it is the conciliatory kiss that seals it for the twosome. This is deft minimalism.

Sadly, such moments are rather rare in Satyagraha. As the speeches roll, angry slogans rent the air and Facebook updates and tweets flash across the screen as a device meant to capture the disgruntlement of the people, the characterizations sinks into shallow generalisations. The chief antagonist, Ambikapur MLA and state home minister Balram Singh (Manoj Bajpayee), is projected as a standard Bollywood villain who smirks and scowls while strutting around the place with the air of a man who knows no stops.
The film’s pivotal character, Dwarka Anand, too, never acquires a tangible, believable feel. He is a larger-than-life Gandhi-like figure who abhors greed and violence with equal vehemence.

Dwarka Anand, Daduji to his followers, slaps the district collector for not doing his job, gets promptly thrown behind bars, and sparks an agitation that sends the politicians and policemen of Ambikapur scurrying for cover. The ageing teacher’s Anna Hazare-style fast-unto-death, undertaken on a raised platform and under a shamiana in what is called the Ram Leela Maidan, is a laboured plot twist that becomes a lame pretext for another round of speechifying.

Satyagraha has a clutch of fine performances with Bachchan, not surprisingly, leading the way with a measured interpretation of a character that sparks a revolt that threatens to spiral out of his grasp. It might be a touch difficult to accept Ajay Devgn as a fresh-out-of-college wannabe entrepreneur. Neither does Kareena Kapoor Khan’s scribe look the part of a television reporter caught in the swirling heat and dust of a small-town revolution.

But neither Ajay nor Kareena lets the gaps in logic throw them off balance. Manoj Bajpayee, despite being saddled with a poorly etched part, is the real star of the show. He evokes mirth and provokes loathing with minimum of apparent effort. Parts of Satyagraha make perfect sense but, on the whole, it never comes close to clicking into top gear. It leaves you more disappointed than angry.

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