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In a season when many big budget Hindi entries (Khushi, Ek Aur Ek Gyarah) have managed only lackluster box offices, some not-so-big-budget films (Leela, Bollywood Hollywood) have at least gained some ground critically, if not commercially. Squarely falling in the latter grouping, Satta is Bhandarkar’s follow-up to the magnificent Chandni Bar. While not quite the sensation that Chandni Bar scored, Satta still manages to draw attention for its squarely cynical view of the Indian body politic.

Tandon of late has taken remarkable steps (Shool, Daman) in establishing a portfolio of smaller interesting entries that will undoubtedly serve her well for the post sex-siren phase of her acting career. In 2003, the busy Tandon will feature in seven films, including J.P. Dutta’s mega cast war-epic Line of Control. In Satta, Tandon plays Anuradha Sehgal, a PR firm wonk lulled into the numbing comfort of a well-paying job and a circle of pseudo-intellectual friends. Anuradha is shaken out of her slumber by the charming Vivek Chauhan (Dharamadhikari), the ne’er-do-well political son of an equally disreputable father (Vyas), and she marries Vivek.

After the bad-tempered Vivek’s abusive ways land him in jail and into political purgatory, Anuradha is suddenly thrust into the political limelight when her in-laws encourage her to run for her husband’s parliamentary seat. Prepped by the power broker and all-purpose insider Yashwant (Kulkarni) and egged on by her father-in-law’s Islamist rival Baig (Namdeo), Anuradha enters the high-stakes and sometimes violent arena of big-city politics.

Although the plot’s bloody overtones have Anuradha’s dilemma carrying vague parallels to Benazir Bhutto’s stormy career graph, the plot is not unique. What is unique in Bhandarkar’s story is that despite taking cutthroat (literally) skullduggery turns to create a mood of unmitigated cynicism throughout most of the 155-minute film, there are sparks of unexpected optimism towards the end.

While Anuradha finds herself surrounded by a nest of political vipers, with both the elder Chauhan and Baig eager to deal their respective Hindu and Muslim communal (read violent) cards at a moment’s notice, Anuradha finds her biggest hurdles in her personal life. While Vyas and Namdeo both nicely serve up rotten apples beyond redemption, it is Kulkarni’s chameleon-like mentor Yashwant that’s presents Anuradha’s biggest challenge.

Kulkarni is superb at appearing simultaneously both the ultimate name-dropping insider and a man no one knows anything about—a truly scary political beast. Should Anuradha surrender to becoming a protégé of the enigmatic Yashwant in a world where Anuradha has few friends or is Yashwant a lone wolf whose leash is being pulled by even more sinister behind-the-scenes forces buying time to strike when the gathering storm peaks?

Spark’s DVD offers a fine widescreen transfer, with decent six-channel sound and a side menu allowing easy selection of scenes, song and coming-attractions. If Govinda in yet another David Dhawan comedy Ek Aur Ek Gyarah was not your cup of chai, then Raveena Tandon in Satta may just do the trick.

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Aniruddh C.

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.