Produced and directed by: Anubhav Sinha
Written by: Anubhav Sinha and Gaurav Solanki
Music: Anurag Saikia, Piyush Shankar, Gingger Shankar & Devin DLP Parker
Starring: Ayushmann Khurrana, Isha Talwar, Sayani Gupta, Manoj Pahwa, Kumud Mishra, Nasser, Shubhrajyoti Barat, Sushil Pandey, Aakash Dabhade, Ashish Verma, Ronjini Chakraborty and others
In the credit titles, filmmaker Anubhav Sinha pays tribute to close friends, and among them are Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj. Sinha’s 180 degree turn from “Dus” and “RA.One” et al. to “Mulk” was compelling, riveting, like a journey of self-discovery. But he overshoots with his tribute here, as someone over-influenced this time by the Kashyap-Bhardwaj ilk.
Instead of the vice-like emotional grip on the solar plexus in his former film, Sinha here goes dark like them but thankfully stays on the right side of deviance. There is a Prakash Jha touch to the political elements as well. But unlike Jha’s and Sinha’s original style (as seen in “Mulk” and also in portions of “Dus”), the mood here is often illustrated in the over-dark camerawork (Ewan Mulligan) and a hazy, shadowy (can’t find a better word to describe it) feel. Such cinematography does go well with the sequence in which the girls hanging from a tree are discovered, but later becomes too over-used and enhances the dull quotient.
Also, the screenplay of “Mulk” was organic and gripping in a searing way, with not a single dull or stretched moment. Here, though we feel empathy for the Dalits, there seems to be over-dramatization in many parts, and frankly, characters like the activist (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub in a special appearance) were not really necessary to the plot primarily to spout clichés like the play on the word “Jan’ (people) in the Indian national anthem.
Though the rapes and murders are (thankfully) shown only implicitly, and the unraveling of the case done in a skilled step-by-step fashion, we also feel that the need for the CBI coming in as shown was also not really required. Maybe Sinha brought in the angle to highlight how things work in remote areas of India (in this case, Uttar Pradesh).
This is highlighted by the hero Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana)’s pithy statement to Panicker (Nasser, in his debut Hindi film that is neither dubbed nor a bi-/tri-lingual!), in which he tells him, in effect, how certain wrong things are given a moral sanction. As in “Mulk,” this part could have probably been specified by a dramatic device within the circle of honest and corrupt cops with a hint of the CBI to come and take over from the honest investigation by Ayan out of political expediency.
That said, many a sequence holds attention: the repeated searches in the marshy sludge, the way Ayan admonishes Yadav (Kumud Mishra) and awakens the latter’s conscience, in the sequence of Brahmadutt (Manoj Pahwa) facing the main rapist, the scene where the constable Nihal Singh’s involvement in the crime and death are conveyed to his sister who is the cook in Ayan’s official quarters and also in how Ayan gets so hyper when he finds her missing one day.
The film rides on some graphic lines and rare flashes of humor as well and is brilliantly enacted. Ayushmann Khurrana steps out of his Delhi/North Indian small-town guy image to be a natural, intense, go-getter cop on a mission, but again, the impact is a shade weakened – and needlessly so – when he is shown as “foreign-returned.” Why can’t an Indian cop also be honest, dedicated to the cause and case of Equality as enshrined in our Constitution? Does such enlightened honesty have to be an import? That said, his performance is not just flawless – it is exceptional.
Khurrana gets solid support from two terrific artistes who had dazzled in “Mulk” – Manoj Pahwa as his subordinate Brahmadutt and Kumud Mishra as Yadav. These two are sterling actors who know how to etch unforgettable essays on celluloid of every kind. Sayani Gupta goes over the top as the Dalit girl, frequently coming across as fake as so many arthouse cinema adherents. Zeeshan is strictly okay in the limited scope he gets to ham: here is one more patent middle-cinema actor who has been on a steady decline of late.
Naseer as Panicker, Sushil Pandey as Nihal Singh, Aakash Dabhade as Satyendra (he does overact in places), Ashish Verma as the underplayed Mayank and
Ronjini Chakraborty as Dr. Malti do well, and all the others are sincere. But Isha Talwar as Ayan’s girlfriend is clearly miscast and uncomfortable.
To repeat, Sinha could have eschewed the Kashyap-Bhardwaj culture to connect with the audience in the “Mulk”-esque manner. That was one of the finest social films in contemporary Hindi cinema, and so was “Dus,” released way back in 2005, in the espionage genre. Here, we get an above-average film that rides on Sinha’s post-“Mulk” reputation, does not besmirch it, but cannot equal it. If the film does better than “Mulk” at the box-office, we will have to attribute its success more to the solid branding of Khurrana as a man who only stars in films that are worth watching for their freshness!