In the early 1980s, Hindi cinema was a theatre of contrasts. The glitzy big-ticket movie was still king of all it surveyed, but the parallel cinema, which had struck roots over the past decade, had its own loyal audience. There was no meeting ground between the two schools, and both nested in unbreachable spaces. Till a film came along and in one fell swoop demolished the barrier.
Ardh Satya , which was released 33 years ago this month, was, by any reckoning, an extraordinary film. Its cinematic merit was unquestionable. So was its immense popularity, a first for an ‘art’ film. But most importantly, it was the first and perhaps only alternative film to influence mainstream cinema in a far-reaching way — the legacy of Ardh Satya can be seen through the ’80s and beyond in film locales, dialogue, the politician villain, and even in specifics like chase sequences through shanties and crowded city streets.
In a very broad sense, Ardh Satya was the story of an upright policeman battling a cynical system — more or less the narrative of the smash hit Zanjeer that had launched Amitabh Bachchan’s stardom a decade earlier. Where it differed completely was in the minutiae — while Salim-Javed’s Zanjeer script was a stereotypical (if entertaining) revenge story, Vijay Tendulkar’s screenplay was both more political and more psychological, delving into the mind of a man destroyed by his brutish cop father and the police force into which he was pushed. Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer was the archetypal ‘hero’ taking on an unfair world; Om Puri was all too real, beating an undertrial to death in a moment of liquor-heightened frustration and using the same corrupt system that he detested to save his skin.
It isn’t like mainstream cinema hadn’t earlier gone the path that this Govind Nihalani film did. Film-makers and their screenwriters had portrayed police officers and underworld kingpins — but in ways that were at best off-kilter and at worst caricature-like. Amitabh Bachchan’s Haji Mastaan-modelled character in Deewar , Premnath’s godfather act in Dharmatma , Pran’s Sher Khan in Zanjeer , supposedly inspired by Karim Lala — none of these characters could hold a candle to Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s Rama Shetty (based on Varadarajan Mudaliar) in terms of raw reality. Ditto for the portrayal of the police officer: Om Puri’s rough-hewn Anant Velankar was so far removed from the archetypal Inspector Rajesh or Dinesh with a pistol in his hand and a song on his lips that even comparing the two is absurd.
The authenticity of Ardh Satya ’s characters also stemmed from the space in which they existed. Rama Shetty wasn’t a villain-in-a-vacuum like commercial cinema’s baddies — he was a cog in the wheel of a corrupt political structure, manipulating it at will and moving from petty don to elected representative with the ease allowed by such a system. Even the most intelligent commercial cinema was rather naïve in its representation of anti-social elements — recall Amitabh Bachchan in Trishul stylishly driving an ambulance to his encroached property and sending the slumlord to hospital in it with absolutely no consequences. Ardh Satya was path-breaking because it made the links, flashing a torchlight on the invisible thread that bound democratic institutions to unlawful activity.
This kind of gritty reality was Vijay Tendulkar’s forte; but the veteran playwright was equally perceptive about another important reality, that of the human mind. His Nehru Fellowship a decade earlier had been on the subject of violence, a preoccupation that suffused all his works. In Ardh Satya , as Govind Nihalani points out, he posited that the system one serves affects one’s psyche — much as Anant Velankar believes that he is different from the regular violent cop, he ultimately falls prey to the brutality of his profession. “Tendulkar’s screenplay, expanded from S D Panvalkar’s short story Surya about a father-son conflict, was sheer muscle without an ounce of fat or ornamentation,” says Nihalani. “And it was path-breaking not just for the political reality but the subtext as well — it was the first film in which the central conflict of the protagonist was with himself, his own demons, rather than someone outside. Tendulkar was also the first film writer who proved that content is not just about plot or screenplay but character.”
Ardh Satya opened up the possibility of a different kind of narrative, one that was dramatic but not mainstream — though the mainstream immediately appropriated it and turned it into a cliché, chuckles Nihalani. What did a school of film-making that normally stayed miles away from any kind of realism, see in the film? As I see it, it was Ardh Satya ’s fortuitous and unintended sprinkle of ‘commercial’ elements within its alternative cinema aesthetic that did the trick. Several other parallel cinema films before it were as realistic and compelling but they were quieter — Ardh Satya , with its pent-up energy and pulsating drama, brought realism into the realm of ‘sexy’. Tendulkar’s dialogue, the likes of which Hindi cinema hadn’t yet been exposed to, was powerful and no-holds-barred; Sadashiv Amrapurkar as Rama Shetty was someone whose swag fitted right in with commercial cinema; and the film’s gut-punch political realism was fascinating for the uninitiated. Impressed, mainstream producers made generous offers to both Nihalani and Tendulkar (indeed, Raj Kapoor, when he was making Ram Teri Ganga Maili , wanted Tendulkar to airdrop some ‘politics’ into the beginning of his movie; the writer politely refused).
But though both Nihalani and Tendulkar didn’t bite the mainstream bait and moved on to other projects of their choice, Ardh Satya ’s influence was there to stay. Its primary impact was seen in the choice of villain — the politician became Bollywood’s new bad man in innumerable blockbusters; he was also a tad more credible, closer to a Rama Shetty than the Tejaas and Shakaals of yore. Ardh Satya also paved the way for the underworld genre of the next decade in which urban-centric films like Satya and Vaastav portrayed the dark underbelly of Mumbai. And as I see it, the coarseness of the cops’ language in Ardh Satya was a forerunner to the dialogue in Anurag Kashyap’s and Vishal Bhardwaj’s films — it opened the floodgates to an unashamed realism of language.
A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a YouTube link of a deleted scene from Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 — a chilling confession in which the cop, on the verge of killing himself, vents his immense hatred for his police commissioner father. I could see shades of Anant Velankar in him — a cocaine-snorting Anant Velankar 2.0 brutalised even before his entry into the police force. Will the millennial Velankar in the Ardh Satya sequel that Nihalani is currently writing be like him? For that we’ll have to wait for Ardh Satya 2.0
The author is a freelance editor and writer