A political protest is ignited by two Indians, Dwarka Awand (Amitabh Bachchan) and Manav Raghvendra (Ajay Devgn), who rally the middle classes together to rebel against an unjust and corrupt political system.

Indian protest film plays its safe.

The title references Gandhi, who coined the word, which means something like 'truth force’. The plot – about a popular political movement that aims to reform a cripplingly corrupt bureaucracy – is a fictionalised take on famed India activist Anna Hazare. In 2011 he led a hunger strike in support of a bill that would install an ombudsman to deal with all manner of misdeeds in public office. He was supported in droves.

An angry protest film that doesn’t want to risk hurting anyone’s feelings for longer than its running time.

Director Prakash Jha seems to be in love with the romance of a popular uprising – he stages grand crowd scenes of mass protest – that I understand are a rather accurate facsimile of what really happened a few years ago in India, at least in terms of their scale and feel for a shared vision. Still, this is a film that has mixed feelings about pop politics. As the movie moves to its violent climax of a seething crazed mob facing off a heavily armed defence force, there’s a lot of earnest babble from its well-meaning and good-looking heroes about the need for restraint, and the practical necessity of playing the political game not as radicals, but as elected legit government stakeholders. Thus, Satyagraha is an angry protest film that doesn’t want to risk hurting anyone’s feelings for longer than its two-and-a-half hour running time.

Satyagraha is an odd mix of the brutal and the kitsch. It combines the familiar political set pieces – there’s countless scenes of activists working crowds from hastily assembled podiums – with song and dance numbers. Jha instills a sense of urgency and high stakes with some gory action and the odd straight-from-the-head-lines image; there’s a particularly gruesome vignette of a man who sets himself alight with petrol as a form of protest.

Prakash Jha has a lengthy track record of pictures that speak to India’s social and political controversies: Raajneeti (2010) – the titles translates as Politics and the plot parodied real-life figures; Aarakshan (2011) was about caste based reservations, while Chakravyuh (2012) dealt with paramilitary political movements on the mainland (Naxalites).

In Satyagraha, Jha and co-writer Anjum Rajabali focus on a small fictional town that exists in a state of permanent dysfunction (and as an emblem of the problems the film ultimately assays and suggests are endemic throughout the continent). Here, all officials seem to be on the make or the take. If one is in need of a service big or small – a licence, or death compensation – the only way to ensure delivery is to bribe and bribe some more. This talky and rather preachy movie doesn’t have a lot of good bits; but the scenes of ordinary folk demeaning themselves in shabby, rundown public service offices has a breathless poignancy.

But don’t be mislead; this is a movie about leaders, not 'ordinary folk’, one steeped in the cult of individual heroism; at base its political plot is designed to work up the correct amount of outrage for the 'masses’ while redeeming the heart and soul of its flawed hero.

Akhilesh (Indraneil Sengupta) and Manay (Ajay Devgn) have been pals since they were boys. Dwarka Anand (Amitabh Bachchan) is Akhlilesh’s dad (he’s the movie’s Anna Hazare) – a teacher and reformer by nature. When we first meet him he admonishes Manay for the latter’s belief in the reformist possibilities of capitalism.

Cut to years later: Manay is a hugely successful entrepreneur, a national leader in the communications sector. Meanwhile Akhilesh is a top engineer involved in massive public developments; after a construction disaster he suspects corruption but he is killed in an accident before he can act on what he knows. Manay is grief stricken. When the local government drags its feet on the compensation promised Akhilesh’s widow, Dwarka becomes so incensed he slaps an official and that lands him in the slammer. Manay puts his considerable fortune to work as he leads a grass roots organisation that campaigns for Dwarka’s release. Manay is able to attract the attention of Yasmin (Kareena Kapoor Khan) an impossibly glamorous reporter who, between investigating corporate malfeasance, flirts with Manay and takes up Dwarka’s cause.

Its discrete incidental pleasures are plentiful; the acting is pretty good and it looks and sounds fine, but the story isn’t so much crafted but thrown on the screen in jolting chunks that never quite cohere. That might have been okay if the film’s sensibility and intelligence was sharp and deep. But Jha and Co. forego close analysis of the corruption that drives the plot; instead, in the not so great tradition of liberal cinema, the complex subtleties of social organisation are reduced to a simple question of personality. This cancer on the body politic is incarnated by Manoj Bajpayee who plays Balram Singh, a slick elected official. He’s a smiling devil with nice hair and a line in acidic quips and rules Dwarka’s district as if it were his own private fiefdom – skimming projects, exploiting issues for personal gain.

This movie is a long way from being smart about its subject but there is a nice plot development that demonstrates that Jha and Co. are willing to accept the crude competitiveness of politics as a reality; when Manay first begins his protests he attracts the hostility of Arjun (Arjun Rampal), a student leader (who fears in Manay both a naïve interloper, not versed in the local issues, as much as a genuine rival). Still, this character delivers perhaps the film’s low point; a groovy Bollywood number intended to arouse the dispossed that tosses off a lyric that inspires its own special kind of outrage: 'Janata Rocks’.


2 hours 32 min
In Cinemas 15 August 2013,