Prior to Govind Nihalani’s directorial debut in 1980 with the award winning film ‘Aakrosh’, his reputation as a key cinematographer in the parallel cinema movement saw him collaborate closely with arthouse Indian film maker, Shyam Benegal, on a number of critically acclaimed and groundbreaking social realist critiques including ‘Ankur’, ‘Nishant’, ‘Junoon’ and ‘Bhumika’. Benegal’s mistrust of social institutions and his sympathetic representations of women who were regularly viewed as symbols of patriarchal oppression would help shape the fiercely leftist ideological content of Nihalani’s films as a director in the 1980s. Benegal tended to work with the same cast and crew for many of his early films including actors like Shabana Azmi, Naseerudin Shah, Smita Patel, Om Puri and Amrish Puri, many of whom would be shared across with Nihalani in his own films. I guess, this was one of the reasons why the Indian art cinema movement in the late 70s and early 80s was in such a buoyant creative mind set as emerging film makers who were willing to tackle taboo social subjects in a very bold manner could easily draw from the experienced pool of acting talent, many of whom were also politically engaged outside the film making process.
The realist cinematography of Nihalani would benefit him enormously as he continues to be credited with acting as his own cinematographer on the films he has directed. Indian cinematographer turned film maker Santosh Sivan would appear to be a contemporary equivalent of Nihalani today but the stylisation one usually associates with the work of Sivan is far removed from Nihalani’s hard, grainy textures. ‘Ardh Satya’ was Nihalani’s third feature as a director and though I have struggled to get access to many of the films he has directed (accessibility is a real problem as it seems that much of the brilliant cinema that was produced during this time is still very much out of reach to the concerned cinephile), this is certainly one of his most powerful films and arguably one of the key films of the parallel cinema movement. Nevertheless, I struggled to get hold of a copy of this film on DVD and had to compromise with a competent VHS print with some terrible fluctuations in colour.
Partly financed by NFDC, National Film Development Corporation, a funding organisation set up by the Indian government in 1975 to help ‘foster excellence in cinema’ and one of the motivating factors behind the emergence of the parallel cinema movement, ‘Ardh Satya’ like Nihalani’s directorial debut ‘Aakrosh’ also benefited from this short lived but very significant attempt to support a politically relevant style of indigenous cinema. Though ‘Ardh Satya’ marked a change in location for Nihalani with much of the film being shot on location in and around the slums of Bombay (now Mumbai), thematically, the focus on the police as both a public institution and the officers who struggle to retain a sense of moral integrity in the face of corruption was a continuation of ‘Aakrosh’ and would also signal a lifelong fascination with the police drama genre; ‘Drohkaal’ and ‘Dev’ would act as further evidence of Nihalani’s claim as an auteur of some considerable distinction.
The story of ‘Ardh Satya’ which means ‘Half Truth’ follows a young police officer, Anant Velankar (Om Puri), who works for the Bombay police force. Determined to be perceived as someone who is both upright and fair in his approach, Velankar quickly discovers that there are those who exist outside the law and have the political reach to manipulate the police for their own ends. One such person that Velankar tries but fails to arrest is Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar), a notorious and powerful local crime lord who seems to live with absolute impunity whilst maintaining a grip over the psyche of the slum dwellers. Shetty uses the support he has with the Bombay police force and the slums to run for city council in the local elections. As Velankar becomes increasingly disillusioned with the police as an institutional force of justice and equality, his relationship with Jyotsna Gokhale (Smita Patel), a college lecturer provides temporary respite from the inevitably doomed direction in which he is headed.
The film also uses flashbacks in which we find Velankar remembering his growing up in a rural village in which his orthodox father, (Amrish Puri), also a police officer, humiliating and hitting his oppressed mother. Velankar is prevented from pursuing an ambition to become a professor and perhaps this explains why he finds an emotional connection with Jyotsna’s intellectually engaged character. Any attempts at Velankar confronting the lawlessness of Rama Shetty are undermined by the inherent corruption of his superiors who seem apathetic to the concerns of the ordinary slum dweller and more responsive to the demands of the middle class elite. Nihalani’s representation of a corrupt and complacent Bombay police force acts as a wider condemnation of the failings of an Indian government of the time led by Indira Gandhi. Perhaps then it’s not so surprising why the film was such a huge hit at the time with audiences.
Another very significant element to the nightmarish tone generated by the film was the weighty ideological contribution of Marathi playwright turned Indian art house scriptwriter, Vijay Tendulkar. Foremost a writer of plays, Tendulkar had become somewhat of a regular collaborator with Shyam Benagal, having written the screenplays for many of the politically oriented films he made in the 1970s including such classics as ‘Nishant’ and ‘Manthan’. The contempt for feudalism which Tendulkar had brought to the screenplay of ‘Nishant’ finds it way in ‘Ardh Satya’. In the generational divide that opens up between the traditional values of the father (Amrish Puri) and the secular politics of the son (Om Puri), Velenkar’s rejection of his father’s marriage proposal extenuates his criticism of the way in which rural village life and its traditions simply perpetuate an order of things that benefit those in positions of power, and namely, the ruling elite. Though Velankar finds it problematic to escape the shadow of his domineering father, by taking the law into his own hands he inadvertently shatters the social order and condemns his father for failing to question his own weaknesses as both an inadequate father and a benign police officer.
Featuring superlative performances from Om Puri and Smita Patel and impressively shot on location in the urban milieu of Bombay, ‘Ardh Satya’ is regarded by many in the Indian film industry as a highly influential genre film, having left its imprint on countless mainstream films such as Ram Gopal Verma’s ‘Satya’, Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Black Friday’ and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘Parinda’. This is one of the great Indian art films and comes highly recommended as a way into the parallel cinema movement.