Recently I discovered Govind Nihalani’s 1984 film Aghaat on a surprisingly well-produced Shemaroo DVD. It isn’t as well-known as the director’s Aakrosh or Ardh Satya but it’s a solid film – stark and talky, as you'd expect from Nihalani, but very well written (by Vijay Tendulkar) and acted. It begins with a dark, hypnotic opening-credit sequence – a dance performance with one set of masked figures symbolising oppressed workers and another set representing their profit-obsessed bosses (sidenote: I was pleased to learn that the masks were designed by Manjula Padmanabhan). Naturally, the dance ends with the success of the Revolution – red flags aloft, wicked management prostrate on the ground, the worker class triumphant.
The audience, comprising trade union leader Madhav Verma (Om Puri) and hundreds of factory workers, applaud heartily; they've just won a minor battle of their own, getting bonuses raised by 17 per cent. But as the film will show, the real-life battle isn't a straightforward one with sides clearly defined. There are ideological differences and selfish agendas within the worker class, and the management is more than happy to divide and rule.
The official authority of Madhav's union is challenged by a rival group led by the shadowy figure of Rustom Patel and his broad-shouldered henchman Krishnan. While Madhav has the long-term interests of all the workers in mind – and is willing to allow benefits to accrue at a steady pace, keeping the future in mind – the rival group succeeds in getting people on its side by promising them quicker, more dramatic changes; so what if a few workers end up being retrenched along the way? Soon this ugly internal conflict begins to play itself out around the personal tragedy of a worker named Chotelal (Pankaj Kapoor), who has lost his legs in an accident. The human side of the story is quickly lost, so that even Chotelal’s funeral late in the film will become a pretext for one-upmanship. Among the others caught in the situation are a conscientious human resources employee (Salim Ghouse) and a woman hired to improve the company's public relations (Rohini Hattangadi).
There’s an essay waiting to be written about Nihalani’s use of Om Puri in the early 1980s. Brooding intensity is sometimes an overrated quality in actors, but Puri’s performances as the mute victim of caste discrimination in Aakrosh and as the introspecting policeman in Ardh Satya are outstanding. His piercing eyes and lined features – often filmed very effectively in half-shadow – as well as the poetic realism of his speech (though in Aakrosh he barely speaks at all) are inseparable from the overall impact of those films. As Madhav, a sincere man who begins to despair of the moral ambiguities he finds himself facing, he dominates Aghaat, which is some achievement considering the many acting heavyweights on view here. (The Malayali actor Bharath Gopi, as the menacing Krishnan, is another standout.)
Madhav’s opposite number is Rustom Patel, whose presence hangs over the film – people are constantly talking about him and his actions move the plot along – though he isn’t seen until the final 10 minutes when he shows up (in a white Fiat!) to deliver a much-anticipated rabble-rousing speech. This short role is played by the biggest name in the cast, Naseeruddin Shah, whose appearance we, the viewers, would similarly have been anticipating. This could have been gimmicky, but it’s the second time Nihalani has used Shah as a sort of doppelganger-cum-nemesis for Om Puri's Man of Integrity, and to good effect.
In Ardh Satya, Shah has a small but very effective role as Mike Lobo, a former police inspector who had to leave the force because he couldn’t deal with the compromises the job required, and who now spends his time getting drunk on cheap liquor and pathetically begging for money. The character makes short appearances four times in the film, each time providing a distorting mirror for Om Puri’s sub-inspector Velankar – when Velankar looks into Lobo’s bloodshot eyes he sees a portent of what he himself might become. In Aghaat, Rustom Patel performs a similar function for Madhav Verma. For all his voiced concern about worker welfare, Patel is palpably cut off from their lives and it’s obvious that he has his own agenda; whereas Madhav moves from one crisis to the next, handling things personally, making sure he’s around for anyone who needs him. By the end, he has seen enough to know what he must do to avoid becoming another Rustom – though the film itself is open-ended about what lies ahead for him.
P.S. The Shemaroo and Moser Baer DVDs are helping me rediscover a lot of these movies and make up for an anomaly in my personal development as a movie buff. Up to the age of 12 or 13, mainstream Hindi cinema made up the bulk of my film-watching (everything Amitabh, but just about anything else with lots of dhishum-dhishum in it), with only occasional, reluctant asides into the “parallel” films that got shown on Doordarshan. Then, sometime around 1990, I discovered Hollywood classics, and shortly afterwards the major French, German and Japanese filmmakers – and I drifted away from Hindi films of almost any description for a decade. Result: for the past 5-6 years I’ve been trying to catch up with the non-mainstream Hindi cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, which I only fleetingly experienced as a child (when I wasn’t best-placed to appreciate a lot of it). Films by Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Govind Nihalani and others of course, but even the more accessible stuff by people like Sai Paranjype and Basu Chatterji – much of which was only a dimly remembered world for me. (On the other hand my wife, who has seen many of these films multiple times on TV over the years, can recite pages of dialogue from movies like Chashme Baddoor and Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai.)
P.P.S. Aakrosh and Ardy Satya are on YouTube, for those of you who can bear to watch films that way.