Director Priyadarshan returns to a relevant and powerful subject after many years. Some of his earlier films, an important one being Virasat (1997), had the imprint of a director who understood human conflict as defined by the larger forces of society. Set in a rural society where caste and patriarchy shaped human lives, Virasat did not its lose grip on the personal while reaching out to the political. Two years ago, he made a beautiful Tamil film, Kanchivaram, about the corrosive impact of communism on the plight of sari weavers in this eponymous town of Tamil Nadu.
But most of his recent mainstream films—and there have been many, considering the director’s unusual prolificacy—lack the earlier maturity. They represent a lackadaisical film-maker, indifferent to his creations, seemingly made for a perceived “audience” which equates banality with entertainment. That the credit in his films is “filmed by”—and not “directed by”—Priyadarshan, is a crude gesture of self-flagellation. He acknowledges that he is no longer a “director”. “Bollywood demands” or “mainstream demands” can’t be blamed for such dishonesty.
Priyadarshan’s new film Aakrosh, inspired by the widely reported menace of honour killings in Bihar, again smacks of mediocrity. Hackneyed, overwritten scenes, unchanelled performances and most shockingly, blatant plagiarism, drown the powerful subject.
Set in Jhanjhad, Bihar, it is about two CBI officers, Siddhant Chaturvedi (Akshaye Khanna) and Pratap Kumar (Ajay Devgn), who arrive in this small town to investigate a case of three missing boys. The boys had come to town for a Ramlila performance, and the girlfriend of one of them was a local girl. The film’s milieu is rotten. Debauched, criminal cops and politicians, a menacing religious establishment, oppressed and abused women—it’s the Bihar of our collective perception. Siddhant and Pratap have different ways of doing their jobs, and they clash. Geeta (Bipasha Basu), a former lover of Pratap now married to an evil cop (Paresh Rawal), pitches in with crucial help to uncover the truth.
There are unmistakable parallels between Aakrosh and Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning. Scenes, even some camera angles, are exactly the same as in Mississippi Burning (instead of a burning cross, you’ll see a burning trishul, exactly from the same angle). The two men at the centre are facsimiles of the roles played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe. The plagiarism does not end there. An important scene in the film is a replica of the most famous scene in Ketan Mehta’s iconic film Mirch Masala. You’ll know if you watch the film.
The only two redeeming factors of Aakrosh concern Devgn. He is given a long chase sequence which involves leaping from brick roofs and ascending iron ladders in two swift moves. In yet another, in an unnecessary car chase in thick jungles, Pratap shows off some more acrobatic stunts. When action sequences are the high points of a film about honour killings, you know how pointless it is.
The performances are uneven throughout. Devgn has the usual testesterone-with-heart aura about him. It always works. Khanna has given some histrionics a go. Basu is sorely out of character in crumpled cotton saris, grief-stricken and helpless. This stripped-down avatar has not suited the actor so far. Rawal tries very hard to play the rogue bhaiyya. His gestures and manner of speaking are calculated and faux-farcical. Obviously, the director let him, a very competent actor, loose.
The film is shot in a beautiful location and as in all films “filmed by” Priyadarshan, the cinematography has some interesting flourishes. But Aakrosh is ultimately a film about a few moments and two action sequences.
It’s a pity Priyadarshan equates audience interests with mindlessness. He said, quite poignantly after making Kanchivaram, that he made it to satisfy himself. He should be making films for himself more often. Great art is often a by-product of obsessive self-satisfaction.
Aakrosh released in theatres on Friday.