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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Ardha Satya

Some characters from films live forever. There are quite a few examples from Indian commercial cinema that endorse this fact. From Radha in Mother India (1953) to Bhuvan in Lagaan (2001), there have been scores of characters etched on our minds. It's quite rare for characters in films belonging to the alternate cinema genre to be as popular among the Indian film audience though there may be some exceptions.

One such exception is the character of Anant Velankar in Govind Nihalani's hard-hitting film, Ardha Satya (1983). Written by Vijay Tendulkar, S. D. Panwalker and Vasant Dev, Ardha- Satya is the story of Anant Velankar (Om Puri), a sub-inspector in Mumbai. An honest cop, he tries his best to bust goons belonging to a local gang-leader Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar making his debut) but comes up empty-handed because of the latter's political influence. Anant also becomes a subject of inter-departmental politics, which further abets his fall from grace.

Frustrated by the turn of events, he turns to alcohol, and from there on has trouble connecting with anyone except his sympathetic boss, Hyder Ali (Shafi Inamdar) and his girlfriend Jyotsna Gokhale (Smita Patil). Anant's conversations with Jyotsna are introspective in nature. He reveals to her, his innermost feelings and why he is not happy being a part of the police force, the high-pressure situations that he has to deal with and his disturbed past. When she tells him about the rampant corruption in the police, he simply tells her that police officers are also human i.e. "Every policeman is a citizen with a uniform."

Jyotsna loves him and understands his feelings but when he becomes increasingly dangerous she decides that her husband cannot be a policeman.

In a way, Anant Velankar is like Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese's brilliant treatise on urban alienation Taxi Driver. He is a loner; has trouble connecting with people, and carries several emotional scars from the past. Anant's father (Amrish Puri), a tough authoritarian, is also a part of the Police Force. He has no qualms in beating his wife while Anant looks on helplessly with bottled rage. For the fear of his father, who doesn't want him to become anything other than a police officer, Anant fulfills his father's wishes while sacrificing his own dream of becoming a professor in arts.

The crux of the story therefore is Anant's quest for virility or napunsakta. When his senior officers ridicule him (by setting goons captured by him free), he feels as if he has been castrated. These high-pressure situations affect him to such an extent that he becomes prone to sadistic outbursts. Small criminals held in captivity fall prey to his wrath, as he slowly loses control over his sanity.

Om Puri as Anant Velankar, plays a flawed and tragic hero with great verve and simplicity. His pain, his anguish is palpable, but his sadistic behavior alienates him from us. There are moments of blistering intensity in his performance that will undoubtedly gain a round of applause, but to his credit, Om Puri also breathes life in scenes that portray the banal aspects of everyday life. It's a performance that is both 'natural' and studied.

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