While reviewing Prakash Jha’s recent film Gangajal, Dharmendra Sushant also takes a look at the controversy its release provoked in Bihar
P rakash Jha’s recently released film Gangajal was in the news recently, because it invoked the ire of Laloo Yadav’s notorious brother-in-law Sadhu Yadav, since its villain happened to bear the same name. The real-life Sadhu Yadav, a legislator of Bihar, has several crimes to his name – including that of the violent assault on JNU students at Bihar Niwas following Chandrashekhar’s murder. His supporters ransacked the theatre halls in Patna and elsewhere, preventing the film from being screened. The finale came when Jha appealed to Laloo Yadav to view the film and grant his seal of approval. Laloo regally declared that he was not in the habit of watching films, but sent Sadhu Yadav to see it instead. Sadhu Yadav suitably appeased, lived up to his real life namesake who declares in the movie: “I’m the one who grants the permission out here”, finally lifted the virtual ‘ban’ on the film.
Several artists and intellectuals protested against RJD activists’ attack on the film likening it to the Sangh Parivar’s attacks on Habib Tanvir’s play in Madhya Pradesh. People also recalled how, years ago, the Bihar Govt. was forced to withdraw the notorious Press Bill in the face of widespread protests. But Prakash Jha thought it better to throw himself at the mercy of the powers that be rather than rely on the people of Bihar. Of course, he claimed he had approached Laloo Yadav only to clear up the ‘misunderstanding’ about the film. But in doing so Jha had to publicly express admirations for Laloo’s role as a messiah of social justice, and to admit that he never heard anything wrong about his relative Sadhu Yadav. That Jha decided to serve up several other “misunderstandings” before the public in order to “clear up the misunderstanding” of one person is not a result of his ‘ignorance’ but ‘wisdom’ instead. Coming to the film itself, it is said to be inspired by the notorious ‘Bhagalpur Blinding’ case two decades back, when the Bhagalpur police had blinded criminals by pouring acid in their eyes. Human rights groups all over the country had expressed outrage over the incident. The acid used by the police soon came to be referred to as ‘Gangajal’ in local parlance. This is what gave Jha the title of the film: ‘Gangajal – A Holy Weapon’. From the maker of ‘Damul’ and ‘Mrityudand’, one would have hoped for a serious portrayal of the complex issues raised by the Bhagalpur Blindings – especially the dilemmas and contradictions posed by the democratic voice of protest against police barbarity on the one hand, and the support for the monstrosity by the local people fed up of criminals on the other. Instead, Jha himself seems to have fallen victim to the contradiction between social concerns and commercial pressures. What else can explain the stick, simplified, pro-system ‘solution’ the film chooses to offer in place of a more sensitive look at the complex problem?
The film shows the hero, Police Superintendent Amit Kumar confronting corruption in the police department at his new posting. In portraying the rot in the police department, Jha has also commented on the changing balance of caste forces in the post-Mandal phase. The film portrays a backward caste police inspector who has to bribe a minister of his own caste for his job. In another instance, it shows how a goon from the Yadav caste has no compunctions about murdering a police officer from his own caste. The film convincingly acquaints the viewer with the newly emergent feudal-mafia forces that, behind the mask of caste, patronise crime to further their class interests. The helplessness of the business community in the face of mafia-criminals, corruption making inroads in the courts, the nexus of state power, criminals and the police, all mirror Bihar’s reality and here Prakash Jha has touched a sensitive nerve.
But having portrayed the problem, it is when Jha explores solutions that he stumbles. When people unite to rise against the villain and his son, Jha poses the Police Superintendent as their advisor. The film’s weakness lies in the fact that it seeks a solution within the very system that has created the problem. Here Jha’s film lags behind Bihar’s own reality. Today, Bihar is witness to the criminalisation of politics rather than merely political patronage of criminals. An honest police officer can change the system on in Bollywood masala, not in real life. Portraying such a solution amounts to negating the role of popular protest and resistance. Here, he falls short of his own earlier films on Bihar. Damul’s heroine defiantly said: “If you had to climb the gallows like this, why didn’t you kill the landlord first”. But this film instead talks of change by sprinkling ‘Gangajal’ of police preachings on people’s protest. Jha claims commitment and concern towards Bihar, to the extent of advocating Bihari sub-nationalism. But if ‘Gangajal’ is an indicator – Jha has failed to understand the people of Bihar.