Classics Revisited: Ardh Satya(1983) | IWMBuzz

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Classics Revisited: Ardh Satya(1983)

Almost every cops film that followed Govinda Nihalani’s hardhitting edgy drama Ardh Satya owes an allegiance to Ardh Satya in one way or another. The stunning film was released during the year when Jeetendra’s Hyderabad-cooked sambhar-dramas Himmatwala, Mawaali and Justice Chowdhary ruled the boxoffice. It was also the year when Rajesh Khanna had his last spate of hits as a leading man in Avtaar, Agar Tum Na Hote and Souten.

And yes, as far as cops dramas in commercial cinema are concerned there was Andha Kanoon in 1983 where Hema Malini played a cop. This was certainly no year for a brutal unrelentingly intense study of crime,punishment, the law and its subversion by powerful goons and politicians.

The eminent playwright Vijay Tendulkar whose speciality were works on socio-political oppression had earlier penned the screenplay for Nihalani’s directorial debut Aakrosh where Om Puri in one of Indian cinema’s most striking debut performances, ended his unlettered mute tribal character’s selfimposed silence with a bloodcurdling scream of protest.

In Ardh Satya Om’s character of the conflicted compromised cop Anant Welankar protests far more violently.At the end he jumps out of his chair and heads straight for the villain Rama Shetty(Sadashiv Amrapurkar)’s throat, choking him to death and walking out of the goon’s den , riding his motorcycle back to his police station to surrender for the ‘crime’.

And why not? If our socio-political system stifles the straight-thinking upright civil servant why should he not smother the living daylights out of a goon who sits scoffing at Anant’s entire career of honest professionalism?

The relevance of Ardh Satya in this day and age of growing compromises in life remains. The police force remains viciously maligned.And the few conscientious cops who dare to think and act straight find themselves ostracized and even declared insane! Remember the government officer in Uttar Pradesh who was whisked off to a mental asylum after he accused Mayawati of corruption?

The powerlessness of Anant Welankar is the impotency of the Indian bureaucracy . It functions more by tradition rather than integrity.Om’s cop’s character is no larger-than-life hero. Nihalani’s’ hero Anant Welankar took the filmy cop out of the don’t-mess-with-me zone of the invincible. Anant is a wounded hurting middleclass Marathi boy from the village with a troubled childhood.With a bully of a father(Amrish Puri , bleeding brilliancy into the drama with his brief role) who beats up his poor hapless mother ,Anant grows up despising all that his father respresents.

And yet paradoxically Anant is a bully is his own work space.

In a shocking departure from conventional cinema, Nihalani captured the hero’s life in all its ordinary hues. We see the cop covering his beat in the small lanes and chawls of Mumbai. We see him picking up petty criminals and thrashing them for small crimes to vent his frustration. We see him drinking on the job and calling the girl he loves at her hostel screaming for attention. We see Anant getting progressively embittered by the corruption all around him. We see him spurning his father’s paternal concern reminding the shocked old man, ‘Tu meri maa ko peet-ta hai’.And then in the night we see Anant putting a blanket on his sleeping father.

The character’s biggest virtue is that it doesn’t try to be anything except what it really is…am ordinary government officer trying to be honest to his job. Nihalani cast Om Puri in the lead to capture the texture of ordinariness in Mumbai’s underbelly. The locations reek of a clamped-down corruption. Mumbai in 1983 was a city waiting to split wide open to reveal the wide chasm between the world of the working class and the layer of crime just beneath.

As Anant Velankar transcends into a kind of middleclass despondency that comes to the upright when they’re compromised,we begin to sense his despair and soon embrace it wholeheartedly. The demonization of the duty-conscious cop is palpable in scene like the one where Anant snaps at the elderly constable who gently admonishes him for drinking on duty…Or each time he rings up the mortified Jyotsana and slurs in a drunken haze.

Throughout the film’s jagged journey Jyotsana , as played by the serene Smita Patil, remains the symbol of all things pure and idealistic, sometime naively so. Smita represents that breed of intensely committed women in starched cotton sarees who believe they can change the world through seminars and morchas. While most of Ardh Satya strikes me as being profoundly relevant to our times Smita’s flag-waving idealism to the point that she tells her cop boyfriend to give up his job or his love for her, struck me as somewhat impractical and giddyheaded.

The world that Nihalani’s film embraces has no place for jingoism. It’s a cut-throat Mumbai where every section of people bully the underdog.We see a lot of sadistic violence in Ardh Satya. Unlike other harbingers of social change who came in to make films in the 1970s and 80s Govinda Nihalani was not afraid of violence. He never flinches away from the dark areas of his hero Anant’s psyche.

Nihalani gets absolutely unostentatious actors to play Anant’s colleagues at the police station. Shafi Inaamdar as Hyder his immediate senior is a portrait of benign pragmatism. Hyder knows we live in troubled times.And the sooner we stop trying to change society the better the chances of our survival.

Ardha Satya Trivia

It has widely been believed that the film was conceived with Amitabh Bachchan in mind. Govind Nihalani completely denies this.
Naseeruddin Shah agreed to do just 4 scenes in Ardh Satya
Nihalani shot two different endings for the film
The poems that Om Puri recites to Smita Patil were specially written by Dilip Chitre for the film.
Satish Shah appeared as a bandit in just one sequence in the film.
Om Puri’s mother was played by Madhuri Purandre.She is an actress and singer who sang 2 songs,a Ghazal and Lavni in Nihalani’s first film Aakrosh.She was also seen in Jabbar Patel’s play Teen Paische Cha Tamasha, a Marathi adaptation of Brecht’s Three-Penny Opera.

Govinda Nihalani Speaks To Subhash K Jha On Ardh Satya

Ardh Satya is today even more relevant than it was when it was made?

We hadn’t really thought about how it would finally turn out. It was after Aakrosh which Vijay Tendulkar had written. He and I were discussing what to collaborate on next. Many ideas came to mind. Tendulkar suggested a short story ‘Surya’ by D A Panvalkar.I read the story. It was about a policeman. But the story didn’t have the soul to sustain a feature film.So I brainstormed with Tendulkarji, imagining what would happen to this cop in the real world.I came up with some suggestions like, ‘Suppose the cop was asked to protect the same criminal whom he stands up against?’ Finally the original story was seen in only 3-4 scenes in the film. During that time Tendulkarji was on a Homi Bhabha fellowship on the expression of violence in society as reflected in Marathi theatre.Tendulkar was also a journalist.So his knowledge of Mumbai, the middleclass of Maharashtra and its underbelly was really deep and insightful. He knew the characters in Ardh Satya. The context of exploration was very much in his area of experiences.

The shocking finale when Anant Welankar strangulates the goonda Rama Shetty still jolts us out of our seats?

The ending that Tendulkar had written was different. According to him the film ended with Welankar’s suicide. It ended with Smita’s character coming to Om’s house to discover he is dead. I felt such an ending would be too nihilistic. Bahut zyada defeatist ho jaata.I wanted the ending to be different.If we went by the theory of existentialism then the protagonist would have to bear the consequences of his action.To let Welankar live and pay for his consequences , according to me, demanded greater strength than death. I told Tendulkarji about my ending. He was remarkably open-minded about it. He said, ‘I’ve told you how I think it should end. However it’s your film. You decide. My advice is to not change my ending.’ I respected Tendulkaji too much to just go ahead and do my own thing.

What did you do?

I shot both the endings , Tendulkaji’s and mine. Unfortunately the other ending is lost.I don’t have the footage. But I shot both the endings and edited them.I don’t think anyone knows this until now.

Then?

I screened both the endings. Only Tendulkarji and I were there at the screening. We saw the entire film twice, with his ending and my ending.After both the screenings we thought about it for sometime. Then he said, ‘In the way that you’ve developed the characters, your ending works better.So go ahead with your ending.’

If Tendulkarji had not agreed would you have gone with his ending?

I was ready to go by his ending. I couldn’t dream of transgressing his creativity. But he appreciated my conviction and my respect for him.I’ve always respected my writers.

Mumbai’s underbelly has now become a stereotypical location for crime dramas?

This genre of cinema depicting Mumbai’s underworld had not taken over. If there were other films in the genre before Ardh Satya I am not aware of it. My films have always been driven by character. So whatever the right environment for my characters, I let them inhabit their natural world. Smita’s character Jyotsana is a middleclass college lecturer so she is bound to travel by buses.

Smita’s character seems naively idealistic?

Why do you think she is naïve?Jyotsana is just in her 20s, out of college. I’ve always been criticized for not making my women strong. But look at Jyotsana in Ardh Satya. Look at her intellectual sophistication.She knows Anant is a policeman. She recognizes the suppressed violence in him. She realizes one cannot separate the individual from what one does.Here’s a woman who is eligible . But she takes a cold dispassionate decision beyond romantic notions of love and leaves Anant. How can you think of her as naïve? She’s progressive and mature.

Om Puri considers you his mentor?

I don’t see myself as his mentor. His career was made on the basis of his talent.The film was not conceived to showcase Om’s talent.

Is it true that you wanted Mr Bachchan for the role?

Not true at all. It was Om all the way. There are certain false notions about the character. Anant Velankar is often interpreted to be an honest cop. For me it was very important to put forward the inner transformation of the character’s journey.Anant was a reluctant cop. His father forced him into the police force. He has a soft sensitive poetic side. Having been forced into the police force Anant discovers the arbitrary power of the khaki uniform. He tries to keep his soul away from corruption. He is constantly trying to check his anger and his selfloathing for not being able stop his mother from being brutalized by his father. Then again he couldn’t stop his father from forcing him to become a cop. There’s somewhere within Anant anger and frustration at not being able to stop his humiliation. He takes it out by exercizing brute force at work. Now some may consider this amateur psychology. But a lot of the so-called complexities of life are actually very simple to explain.

You’ve shown Anant’s bitter rage being manifested in terrible thoughts of impotency and emasculation?

Anant feels the system is castrating him.In fact Anant’s colleague Hyder says, ‘So long as you have a uniform you have hope.’ Hyder urges Anant to strike a deal with the goon Rama Shetty. In his naivete Anant thinks he can strike a deal with the criminal without compromising his principles. While striking a deal he discovers the price he has pay, that is ,total surrender to the goon’s wishes. Anant asks, ‘Tum chahte ho tum thooko main chaatoon?’ Anand therefore reacts. He kills rather than take the humiliation.It’s not a moment of heroism.That completes Anant’s journey from the coward and weakling who can’t confront his father to the man who is ready to face the consequences of his action.Anant must not be seen as a virtuous idealistic cop. I see Anant as a complex character trying to negotiate an environment that gives him a sense of arrogant power. Then suddenly he realizes the power is an illusion.

Apart from Om the other startling performance came from Sadashiv Amrapurkar as the villain Rama Shetty?

Right from the start I knew I needed a fresh face for that character.I asked Vijay Tendulkar about it. He recommended Sadashiv. I met him. I found his face and eyes interesting. I wanted someone who looks like a person from Karnataka. He fitted the bill. But I hadn’t seen his work. He invited me to a play the next day with Bharti Bharve. They were performing a farcical play where Sadashiv was playing a bumbling policeman. I was astounded by his comic timing.I took a chance and I cast him without any screen test .I am glad I was right.

Naseeruddin Shah in a cameo is still remembered?

His character of the burnt-out alcoholic cop had to be a mirror image of what Anant Velankar could have turned into. He had just four scenes.I was very grateful to Naseer for doing a cameo after playing the protagonist in my Aakrosh.In my Party he came for one shot.

Om Puri On Ardh Satya

“I consider Govind Nihalani my true mentor. He gave me my two finest roles in Aakrosh and Ardh Satya…It would be no exaggeration to say Ardh Satya was the single-most career-defining role of my career. The police officer Anant Welankar was not just an individual. He is to this day a symbol of all that ails our bureaucracy and politics. Why just the police force? He represents every single government officer who stands up to fight against corruption and injustice. To this day honest officers are punished for trying to stand up for what they think is right, just like my character Anand Valekar. Look at what happened to the Bihari civil servant who stood up against the road-construction mafia. He had to pay with his life.Or that civil servant who was mowed down by the mining mafia in Madhya Pradesh….The voice of social protest raised by my character in Ardh Satya is to my mind more relevant today than it was when it was when Ardh Satya was made.By killing the goonda politician in Ardh Satya my character did what he could in the way of social protest. In today’s times there are many more voices rising in protest against Jessica Lal’s murder than there was when Ardh Satya was made…I think the film worked because the entire team believed in what it was saying. Smita Patil sportingly agreed to play a small role. We of the parallel cinema often did that.I’ve often played played small roles in Naseeruddin Shah’s films and he has done the same in mine.”

Also Read:Classics Revisited: Gol Maal(1979)

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