It’s a Mumbai we have not seen in our movies. Many of us have not seen it closely either. In Malvani, the western suburb of Malad where Chandan Arora’s Striker unfolds, Muslims live cheek by jowl with Hindus in matchbox apartments, petty gangsters plot with depraved cops to earn small bucks, a young fisherwoman runs a beachside bamboo-shaded bar, and betting in cash fuels ugly contests in dingy carrom clubs.
It is a dystopian world for most of us—the kind that seems to exist somewhere beyond the serpentine lanes and boxed windows of slums that we see from buses, trains and cars. A chaotic microcosm that mirrors the malaise of the big city as well as its fierce will to live.
Arora, an editor (Company and Cheeni Kum), first made Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon in 2003 under the Ram Gopal Varma banner and followed it up with Main Meri Patni Aur Woh in 2005 before producing and directing this, his most ambitious work. In the earlier films—largely mediocre, but not without thought or promise—Arora tried to rigorously capture the nitty-gritty of the milieu he set his stories in. Both of them contained worlds defined by their people, streets, houses, slang and clothes.
In Striker, he does that with more rigour and imagination, which is the film’s biggest achievement. The characters, infused with vibrant colour, and the depiction of Malvani, the scene of communal rioting in the violence that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, are authentic and gritty. In the end credit roll, “Writing and research” is a credit in itself—a rarity in our movies.
The story of Striker, written by Arora himself, is about many people and many things, seething in the heart and nooks of Malvani. Communal harmony, communal violence, a Hindu-Muslim romance, sibling bonds, lower middle-class disgruntlement, the dangers of life in a ghetto, police corruption, petty crime, mafia politics—and all of it is transpiring in the 15 years between 1977 and 1992. In the pre-globalization, pre-call centre, pre-cellphone era, how safe is the life of an ambitious young man in his early 20s who has no education or wealth? How easy is it to coerce him or lure him into crime? Striker shows us some unpalatable and amoral truths—very different from the chest-beating machismo and melodrama of, say, the earlier films of Amitabh Bachchan in which he played similar roles set in the same era.
The era is very authentic in Arora’s frames. From Siddharth’s (the lead actor who plays Suryakant) hairstyle and the clothes that the characters wear, to the films that play in the background, 1970s’ and 1980s’ Mumbai is impeccably evoked.
But the arch and scope of the story is such that without careful and intelligent interweaving, the various strands go asunder. Finally, it is not a film with a firm, riveting centre.
In a nutshell, the story follows Suryakant and his friend Zaid (Ankur Vikal) as they try, by all means, for a better life. They are pawns for the local ganglord Jalil (Aditya Pancholi), who runs a betting and gambling racket in the carrom dens of Malvani. Carrom becomes a metaphor as well as a tool to propel the narrative. Moving back and forth, the film ends in 1992, when communal riots break out in Malvani. Surya, who chooses the safe path towards the end of the film, is in for a big surprise and commits the most violent—and strangely the most poetic—crime of his life.
The performances are mostly even except, unfortunately, Siddharth’s. He tries hard, but the actor, who was last seen in a Hindi film in 2006 in Rang De Basanti, can’t lend the role the spunk and poignancy it deserves. In most scenes, he is rather wooden—and alienates our sympathy.
As the reckless and gullible childhood friend, Vikal puts up a spirited and convincing performance. We saw Vikal last in Slumdog Millionaire as the villain who pimps slum children. Seema Biswas (Surya’s mother) is, as usual, a delight to watch, crackling with the energy of a proud Marathi housewife grappling with never-ending odds. Surya experiences two different kinds of romances: With Noorie (Nicolette Bird), it is the idealistic kind and with Madhu (Padmapriya), it is circumstantial and physical. Arora’s handling of the second kind is surprisingly clumsy—I was appalled by one scene in which rape passes off as lovemaking, which then abruptly ends in societal recognition. It is an offensive scene, no matter what degree of realism Arora was attempting. A rape can’t be carelessly thrown into a film.
Technically, Striker is accomplished. Arora’s shots are imbued with colours and details which are consistent through the film. Some look laboriously lit and thought over, and those filmed at outdoor locations have an entirely different palette—a visually rich ode to a suburban Mumbai we have rarely seen. P.S. Vinod, the cinematographer, is committed to the tone and milieu of the film without compromising on the aesthetics.
Arora uses music effectively, lending the film a mood that matches the precariously balanced lives at stake here (some of the lyrics are written by Swanand Kirkire and Gulzar, and composed by Vishal Bhardwaj, Blaaze and Amit Trivedi). My favourite is Yun hua, a haunting song that played on in my head long after I had watched the film.
Striker is one of the good films of the year so far. It is not a breezy film or a candyfloss entertainer, but it’s surely an example of committed and adept film-making. There’s never enough of it.
Striker released in theatres and on YouTube on Friday.