Director: Milap Milan Zaveri
Cast: John Abraham, Manoj Bajpayee, Aisha Sharma, Rajesh Khera, Manish Chaudhary
What are the prerequisites to being a good Bollywood vigilante around whom audiences and the box-office can rally?
Though we have had some vigilante bhoots-bhootnis, even pissed off nagins, the most common variety used in these genre movies is a hyper-hetero man.
This man must have both, muscle and moral force. Muscles are formed in the gym, by breaking stones in a quarry or chopping wood in some secluded patch of a forest. Moral force is usually born out of some past grouse that won’t let him be. (The few vigilantes, who don’t have muscle, have smarts, and they are usually women.)
The Vigi, as we should call him, must nurture a decent degree of insomnia so that he can strike targets in the safety of the night. Thus, red eyes, flared nostrils, single-minded focus and an IQ to match.
He must also have a death wish to repeatedly make us worry about his well-being by embarking on suicidal missions.
The Vigi must have one clear enemy — usually a corrupt politician, babu, cop, rapist, lootera, zamindar, doctor, etc. But, there should be a battery of evil minions whom Vigi can slay en route to the top dog.
Vigi must also have deep, angsty frustration with the justice system, and profound belief in his own purpose and morality. This is what will help Vigi have zero qualms when he goes about crunching human bones, slashing throats, chopping off limbs, gorging our eyes. In essence, creating a bloody mess to deter all future evil aspirants.
Vigi must not seek institutional change, must not want to fix the system.
Imagine, Vijay from Zanjeer, Shahenshah, Chulbul Pandey, Singham, the cast of Rang De Basanti and Mr India sitting around a table and pouring over the report of an expert committee on how to fix our corrupt, dysfunctional criminal justice system.
That’s not the stuff cultish lone rangers are meant to do. To be a Vigi is to believe that the only solution is destruction.
No one wants to take back home a heightened sense of frustration.
There’s an immoral cesspool, and it needs draining.
Thus, the loud, rousing Shiva chant Satyameva Jayate uses rather generously, starting with when a matka full of ashes turns up at the doorstep of a police thana. It’s to announce that we’ve been invited to a dance of death, so get onto the edge of your seats, please.
Satyameva Jayate, written and directed by Milap Milan Zaveri, tells the story of two men — Shiv (John Abraham) and Shivansh (Manoj Bajpayee).
One is some sort of an artist who throws violent, charcoal strokes on white paper to create screaming faces. He also stalks and immolates evil.
The other is a cop who announces his modus operandi in a conversation to his daughter while fishing.
I dig big machlis, not small fry, he says. But as he’s explaining how he gets to them, dangling at the end of his fishing rod is a frail, irritated fish, sealing his fate in this vigilante versus vardi game.
Following the arrival of the courier of a cop’s ashes, there’s a lot of besti of Mumbai police in newspapers and on TV shows. So police commissioner summons the department’s only akalmand and immandar officer to head the manhunt because corrupt cops are being targeted, and there are too many of them.
The cat-mouse game, where Vigi tortures and kills bad cops while outsmarting the akalmand cop makes up most of the film.
All the killings are in a very jingo la la mode. The national flag is summoned often to sway to rousing chants and the clanking of temple bells, to suggest to us that Vigi is fighting some sort of dharam yudha. He is helping some people, sure, but he is scalping these cretins to reach the top to settle a very personal score.
Though Vigi’s killing sprees here are composed in the most hysterically absurd way, and it’s bizarre how he always gets to be where some besahara is wailing, he is unassailable.
In one scene bullets fly around a petrol pump where fuel had been sprayed quite carelessly. Yet, nothing ignites. It takes a matchstick from Vigi to get the job done.
Our Vigi also, when he can, goes on city cleaning sprees, saves dying puppies, and then buries them in a graveyard which looks as if an out-of-job five-star florist decorated it to make a point to her boss.
On one of his civic outings, Vigi meets Shikha (Aisha Sharma). She is one of those very, very woke millennials who are found posing next to every worthy cause in denim shorts. Always incandescent and helping build a better world, one graffiti, one plastic bag, one frail puppy at a time.
But she’s not important, as women never are in most Vigi films.
Satyameva Jayate is all about two men at war. One is morally flawed but legally legit, the other is legally a criminal but morally kosher.
Who will win? LOL.
Many people say that John Abraham is wooden. I hear, I ponder. Hmmm, kinda, sure.
But so what?
Fact is that his charming face lends itself very well to decisive action without allowing a single confusing, conflicting thought to disturb the arrangement of furniture on it.
If he’s angry, he shouts. If he’s sad, he cries. If he’s thinking, he throws a glum stare. If he’s maaroing sarcastic ones, he lifts one corner of his mouth to show cunning. And when he’s killing, well, we know there’s no escape.
It’s primitive. It gets the job done. And, his butt is very cute when angry.
Acting is not just one thing. In commercial cinema, especially, where the appeal is visceral and not cerebral, projection is paramount.
If you and I have bought tickets to a Tandav performance, we don’t want to sit there appreciating the charming elegance of Mohiniyattam dancers as they narrate, with their pretty, expressive eyes, stories of Krishna’s butter-stealing escapades.
We have paid to witness death and destruction. We want to see the stage smashed with rage.
So when we buy tickets to vigilante, revenge films, it is so that we can be an apprentice walking behind the master. So that, at least for the duration of the film, we go through the full range of emotions — anger, joy, love, sadness, catharsis, tears — before reaching calming closure.
For that to happen, we must feel what the hero is feeling. We must be hooked into the Vigi from the word go so that we can do our jobs — tense up when he’s in danger, breathe easy and smile when he’s done.
Projection, melodrama is, of course, a lesser form of acting. But it is tough to do. Check it out for yourself in Satyameva Jayate where Manoj Bajpayee, one of Bollywood’s finest, is called upon for some emotional exaggeration.
While he crackles in scenes where he’s assigned whistle-worthy dialogue — Rokoonga bhi, thokoonga bhi — but repartee don’t kill nobody.
Satyameva Jayate’s plot is twisted to hide some nice surprises, and its killing scenes, though daffy, are bloody and have enough filmy drama to keep us engaged.
The film also, interestingly, invokes some chuckles as it dips its toes in contemporary dirty waters — “Note badle, niyat nahin”. For a vigilante film starring John Abraham, that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s cunning, almost, to lehrao the tiranga and ask, “Achche din aa gaye kya?”