Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Film Review #181: Apaharan/Kidnap
Director: Prakash Jha
Cast: Ajay Devgan, Nana Patekar, Mohan Agashe

For starters, imagine a dark, Jason Bourne-type thriller about political corruption and double-dealing set in India. In place of professional assassin Bourne’s amnesia – emblematic perhaps of the West’s fatal weakness with regard to history – Ajay Shastri (the magnetic Ajay Devgan) struggles first to escape his revered reformist father’s too-looming shadow through allegiance with an alternative father figure, the corrupt power-broker Tabrez Alam (Nana Patekar), and then to find his way home.

Billed as a story of the brisk trade in kidnapping for ransom in the state of Bihar, located on India’s northern border with Nepal, veteran filmmaker Prakash Jha’s 2005 study of justice and violence premiered just as public revulsion there with such corruption led to the ouster of Bihar’s long-time ruling party. In following the younger Shastri’s winding path, Jha’s film astutely explores how extremism and assassination might come to seem viable even to unlikely men.

By the time Ajay has come full circle, reconciled with his father, given his own confession, and meets a last time with Tabrez Alam, the film’s plot has methodically laid out the corruption of nearly every character occupying an official office and built its suspense on how – over and over, at the last minute – the law alone is powerless to halt their steady advance. Ajay may even think he has his father’s blessing to dispatch Tabrez Alam as the last resort; during their reconciliation Professor Shastri (Mohan Agashe) urges his tearful son not to apologize but to “atone.”

Apaharan begins with the patrician scholar holding a press conference in his family’s courtyard about political kidnappings. Young Ajay slips out the side door. Woefully unsuccessful as a vendor of natural remedies, Ajay tells his girlfriend Megha (Bipasha Basu) of his new plan – he’ll enter the police force, even if it takes paying a bribe. Though brave – early on he’s seriously injured, dragged by a car as he tries to stop a kidnapping – this bribe starts Ajay’s descent down a slippery slope into crime. Soon he’s kidnapping, shooting his main rival Gaya Singh (Yashpal Sharma), and running other gangs out of town. Clearly Ajay’s self-deluded in his new-found power and success. After all, his base of operation is a local cell-block, the only safe retreat.

Just as clearly Tabrez Alam, hardly devout himself, plays on the resentments of his followers, mainly poor Muslim laborers. A minority in Bihar – where over 80 per cent are Hindu – Muslims still suffer discrimination, poverty and lingering resentment over the violent 12th century Islamic invasion. Tabrez Alam provides a powerful portrait of the cynical manipulation of this beleaguered community. In contrast, it’s another Muslim, quiet police officer Anwar Khan (Mukesh Tiwari), who alone stands by Ajay once he decides to bring Tabrez down. We see too few screen stories that treat this particular tension in our own or other nations with anything approaching such nuance.

And we’ve seen almost nothing in US media about the killer floods in Bihar that began August 18th and displaced over 3 million people. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Brad Pitt went to work on innovative emergency housing. And now, some 5,000 Bihar flood refugees live at Punarwaas, an NGO refugee camp with school, hospital, and both temple and mosque that Bihar native Prakash Jha set up and administrates with support from other major Bollywood figures, including several of this film’s lead cast. The Punarwaas project expects to run, and need continued support, well into next spring when these residents might begin going home.

You can support Punarwaas and see Apaharan tomorrow night on a big screen here in Syracuse thanks to Tula Goenka, associate professor of television, radio and film at SU’s Newhouse School, who arranged the screening as a fund-raiser. Goenka directs SU’s annual Human Rights Film Festival each fall, has screened Jha’s films locally before and has written about his work as an example of how Indian cinema includes dramatic storytelling beyond the lavish musical romances with which many US audiences associate “Bollywood.”

Last May, Goenka took 11 Newhouse students to India for the first four-week summer internship in film there for US university students – a timely move, as it turned out, since in late June Steven Spielberg and David Geffen signed a multimillion-dollar partnership and production deal with India’s Reliance Entertainment.

Waiting to see if Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire makes it to Syracuse? Meanwhile, whether you’re a Bollywood fan or a new-comer, Apaharan is a good way to spend Friday night.

This review appears in the 11/13/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Apaharan screens tomorrow night at 7:00 PM, 11/14, in Newhouse 3, Room 141 (Waverly Ave. entrance) at a special fund-raiser to support filmmaker Prakash Jha’s Punarwaas project. Also see “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not have a theatrical opening in CNY and older films of enduring worth.