Why Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya Is More Relevant Than Ever
George Floyd in America and Jayaraj & Bennix in India have surely started a debate around police brutality. But, Ardh Satya was talking about it in 1983.
The day I watched Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya for the first time; back at film school, I went back home with a heavy heart and a sense of historic illumination. As far as I remember, it was 2 years ago and it was raining heavily in Mumbai. I just sat in my room for an hour; thinking about the minimalism that was followed back in the time by some writers and filmmakers and also about the hard hitting portrayal of a police officer, Anant Welankar, who is drenched by his past and is unable to deal with the corrupt political nexus in the present; played by the late Om Puri. I also couldn’t help but think about the other part of the world where police brutality is celebrated, revered and is never questioned. Ardh Satya, written by celebrated playwright Vijay Tendulkar, not only dives into the systemic viciousness that has engulfed the nation through years, but it also brings about the idea of isolation, addiction and poetic catastrophe which surrounds the modern man. George Floyd in America and Jayaraj & Bennix in India have surely started the debate around police brutality. But, Ardh Satya was talking about it in 1983.
Before you read further, make sure that you have seen the film. It is available for streaming on Zee5.
Premise – Anant Welankar, a young policeman, forced to join the services by his father, is caught between his own ideals and the stark reality of widespread corruption in the police force and its strong nexus with politics.
The film opens up at a party where Anant (Om Puri), a police officer, meets Jyotsna (Played by the evergreen Smita Patil), a lecturer of literature. The friendship soon blossoms into a pure companionship. Anant, as an officer, is very upright, diligent and hard-working. But his idealism doesn’t ring a bell with the harsh political nexus in the city as he gets to meet the smiling and enigmatic Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar). Rama Shetty brings in the chaos for Anant after the former gets a refusal to work in collaboration. Shetty has half of the system in his pockets; as seen in several incidents where Anant had caught his men and they were given bail without any charges. The cloud of suspension surrounds him as he tries to do the right thing with a world viewpoint where colour grey doesn’t exist. At the same time, Anant also remembers his childhood, where his abusive father played by Amrish Puri (Unnamed in the film) who is also a police inspector, shows his brutal side many times. Memories of his mother linger him as he is at the brink of a Labyrinth (Chakravyuh).
The film masterfully captures the isolation of a man, frustrated by the dark world of Indian law enforcement. Anant never wanted to be in the police. Watching his mother grappling with her husband’s constant abuse, he withdraws from his aspiration of becoming a lecturer. Only to find a companion in Jyotsna, who on the surface, is poetically and very charmingly similar to Anant. One of the scenes where Anant and Jyotsna meet for a cup of tea in a fancy hotel, she raises her apprehension towards the expensive menu. Soon after, she gives Anant a poem to read; this is where the film gets its title. As Anant starts reading out Ardh Satya loudly, his smile vanishes and hopelessness kicks in. Jyotsna, with her cognised glance, only observes Anant as his tone becomes slower and there’s a moment of realisation. Many critics consider this as one of the finest moments in the world cinema. It gives us an idea about the effect of art upon a man in the postmodern era, almost in a metaphysical way. The poem itself is beautifully-written. It binds the thematic artistry of the film. The poetry hits him again in one of the last scenes when the conscience is lost, the consequences are inevitable and his quixotism is enlightened.
Anant’s delusion leads him to the path of alcoholism. A parallel track of another suspended police officer, Mike Lobo (Naseeruddin Shah), plays out to make Anant remember about the ramifications of his utopian actions. Several of his colleagues warn him, but the regrets of his past and the complexity of his present forces him to become a brash officer who would beat up even protesters of a labour union.
When police authorities are monitoring the situation at a factory, where labour union is protesting for their rights, Anant and his senior, Haider Ali, are asked to follow the above orders and not let the poor workers hinder in factory’s transportation. Coincidentally, Jyotsna reaches at the protest site with her friend who is researching on labour relations for a PhD. Anant asks them to leave the place immediately as he fears that violence can erupt any time. When Jyotsna’s friend questions the police officers about labours’ rights of protest, Haider Ali ironically replies “We cannot let anyone break the law”. The scene follows the extreme behaviour of the police force, hysterically beating up the labourers. Jyotsna, being a witness, ponders over her relationship with Anant, who monstrously silenced the voices of dissent.
Like every other good screenplay, the cards slowly open up to a catharsis. Ardh Satya follows the same nuanced writing. Film’s genius lies in its treatment. Vijay Tendulkar, in all his greatness, made sure that the viewer should not grasp the theme at the beginning itself. Anant’s alcoholism and his idealistic need to stand up for injustice; for his mother and his uniform’s conduct, makes Jyotsna confront his behaviours. We see real newspaper cuttings of the custodial killings and the police brutality headlines covering the entire screen; soon after the confrontation. Anant, still in self-deception, believes that the police is not all bad. I agree. We have seen bravery, discipline and fight for injustice amongst the police force. There’s no denying about that. But that doesn’t restrict us to question over the matter of police brutality.
Anant Welankar; the policeman with an abused past, with the haunting remembrance of his mother and with a fit of anger towards the system (he doesn’t get a medal for capturing a wanted decoit), kills a small-time thief while he was in charge. Malnourished thief’s crime — stole a transistor (Suspected not proven). Anant gets suspended immediately for his immoral and unlawful act. Haider Ali suggests him to meet Rama Shetty for help. The climax is one of the most well-written scenes one will ever come across. That is for everyone to experience.
After George Floyd died in the police custody (The video is viral and heart-wrenching), America saw many protests on the streets. Americans want to hold police agencies to account and “decolonize” the repressive institutions they inherited from colonial rulers. The image of George crying for help was so visceral and so violent that it will be reminiscent of the USA’s defile relationship with racism for decades. It will haunt us in the way never before. India saw a similar incident when brutal deaths of a father-son duo occurred in judicial custody in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district. What was their fault — keeping their small mobile phone and accessories shop open for 15 minutes beyond the state-government-imposed curfew of 8 pm? Even more, similar things happened at the time of the Delhi riots and when students protested against Narendra Modi’s fascist and racist citizenship law (Roger Waters had the same views).
At this point in the world, we are watching far right-winger regimes exploiting their powers. The increased love towards authority in some sections of society is problematic. Moreover, an empathic discourse is lacking everywhere. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recorded a staggering 1,674 cases of custodial deaths in 334 days (11 months) between April 2017 and February 2018, which implies over five deaths in custody per day. We go to the police when we need help from injustice. But where will we go if police are the ones who practice injustice? How long will it take to get justice for the families of Jayaraj & Bennix and for all those who died in police custody? Where is the accountability?
In such turbulent times, Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya becomes more relevant than ever.