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LAL SALAAM. Director: Gaganvihari Borate. Players: Nandita Das, Sharad Kapoor, Sayaji Shinde, Makrand Deshpande, Rajpal Yadav, Hemangini. Music: Pt. Hridaynath Mangeshkar. DVD, Hindi w/ Eng. Sub-titles. Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby (Samrat).

In a vast country like India, at any given time, there are always one or even several ongoing insurgencies giving the central government headaches. In broad cinematic terms, mainstream filmmakers shy away from the stories behind the various insurgencies presumably on grounds that these stories lack broad popular appeal or worse, that they represent excess potential baggage. That is too bad because as Lal Salaam shows, in the right hands, the story of one such group—a tribal group that would qualify as Scheduled Caste in India—not only makes compelling fiction but also thought-provoking entertainment.

Set in a remote jungle, and loosely borrowed from real-life events, this story of a group of hapless tribals caught at the center of a broad-daylight storm has much to say. In tune with the tribal code, all members of this clan are distantly related, cohabitate freely, and shun materialism in favor of simple, subsistent lives. Central to all this is Karna (Kapoor, who is credible), a first-from-his-clan medical student who periodically intervenes in family squabbles and Karna’s paramour Roopi (Das, who is fantastic), the unsophisticated lass who can’t wait for Karna to finish his degree so that they can get married.

A battle of wills and ways settles in when the villagers find themselves pulled at by two political polarities that take root nearby. The jungles surrounding the tribal area is infested with a group of Maoist Naxalite rebels whose educated leader Rajaiah (Deshpande) is seeking to expand his following by enlisting the villagers to take up arms against the Indian government. On the “civilized” front, meanwhile, the tribe must endure daily atrocities at the hands of the local constabulary, led by the low-life Deshpande (Shinde) and his corrupt cronies.

What is disturbing, and the script’s minor flaw, is the gratuitous violence and sexual debauchery perpetrated by the local cops over the tribals. This is most evident in the experiences of both Roopi and her brother Geeshu (Vijay Raj, the bumbling wedding planner from Monsoon Wedding). The rebels, on the other hand, even though outnumbered and wearing tattered uniforms, are depicted as a more-or-less disciplined force lined up behind their eloquent leader Rajaiah. Where Lal Salaam wins out, however, is slicing into seldom-explored social strata by depicting lives so precariously balanced between the whims of corrupt civil servants and the easy-out rhetoric of rebellion.

Even though Samrat’s DVD boasts only a better-than-average print, the sound effects are wonderful. The flick also gets a boost from Hridaynath Mangeshkar’s musical score which makes good use of Gulzar’s lyrics and Mangeshkar’s oldest sister Lata’s singing. Newcomer Hemangini provides a small pivotal role, as does Rajpal Yadav as her husband. The ensemble cast comes together for a rich viewing experience. Now if only more such stories can be given voices.

Aniruddh C.

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