Prakash Jha movies strive for the fine balance between political machinations and wider box office appeal. Jha’s success with Raajneeti (2010) and Gangaajal(2003) proved that when he is able to level the playing field, he can be spot on. When he bites off too much, as he did with Chakravyuh (2012) the fare appears water-filled and soggy. Sentimental without being sappy, Satyagraha sits in on a decently outlined modern parable that even Gandhi may not mind.
Staged as pedestrian-level history lesson and contemporary commentary, Jha’s story, co-written with Anjum Rajabali, hinges on retired headmaster Dwarka Anand (Bachchan) being forced by a family tragedy to confront possible corruption perpetuated by local highway building authorities. Aided by investigative TV reporter Yasmin Ahmed (Kapoor) and Anand’s former-student turned community organizer Arjun (Rampal), Anand must decide whether to tackle the well-organized, deep-pocketed and shrewd politician Balram Singh (Bajpai) at his own devious game or stake out a Gandhi-influenced higher moral ground.
Bajpai and Bachchan essentially recreate the same roles they undertook for Jha in Aarakshan (2011) with Bachchan as an old-school moral guardian and Bajpai as an opportunistic lizard somehow always clawing his way to latch on to the most favorable political winds. This time, however, the tug of war between them is more appealing, wittier and better staged. Their tussle pushes Anand’s opposition to a highway funding scheme being transformed from a grassroots movement to a political party to Anand eventually being labeled an enemy of the powers that be.
Bachchan’s channeling of Gandhi is directly extracted from a handful of grainy, black-and-white photos classically depicting Gandhi as a frail, white-clad wise owl on a hunger strike or a guardian sage walking with the help of two young women. The way that a grieving Anand approaches a highway patch that has witnessed a tragedy and delicately caresses the road surface could serve as an allegory of Gandhi pounding the pavement during a Salt March to make a case for India’s independence.
Void of high speed chases and loud explosions, the story moves on crowd control and histrionics. Kapoor does well as a principled investigative reporter who shuns ratings stunts offered by exposing the sex life of a political figure in favor of following the trail of a highway construction contract that she senses could very well morph into a full-fledged criminal and political conspiracy. Rao as a young widow and Rampal as the go-to guy Anand relies on for gathering everyday folks into a potent force are also written well and fleshed out nicely.
Embedded in Kapoor’s TV reporter is the subtle supposition that—much like the character Rani Mukherjee played in No One Killed Jessica (2011)—a strong woman needs to have a career to be taken seriously. That is unlike, say, Deepika Padukone’s character in Chennai Express who had no ambition other than to run away from home. In 2013, providing a professional career to the female lead can be considered a small step forward.
Ironically, its Devgn’s Manav Raghvendra, an unambitious captain of industry, who comes across as the weakest link in a chain of otherwise well-defined characters. Lackluster in Devgn’s delivery, Raghvendra is written as Anand’s surrogate son and yet comes across as an arrogant venture capitalist uninterested in the immense wealth that can be both created and destroyed—and especially the human toll demanded—by his symbolic flicking of a few high tech switches in a wired world.
Ashutosh Gowariker and Aamir Khan tapped into the Gandhi persona in Lagaan (2001) delicately and almost as an afterthought. Jha’s approach in Satyagraha is more blunt—and yet carried though with just as much finesse.
Lest we get tempered with an excessive populist posturing—this is, after all, a Hindi movie—the unexpected splash of cold water and what turns out to be the most lucid lines in the entire script are voiced by Kapoor’s Yasmin in objecting to Anand’s camp swaying too much toward political showmanship. Simply put, Yasmin’s words amount to the following: Populism is no substitute for democracy. Well summed up!