By Subhash K. Jha, IANS
Pankaj Kapoor who narrates the harrowing true-life story of a cop’s heroic efforts to combat the political mafia in Uttar Pradesh seems to have done his second surprise jig in a month. If in DUS he turned out to be deliciously heroic, in SEHAR - a dusty crusty and often bloodthirsty look at crime and perjury in the heartland of the cow belt - Kapoor turns uncharacteristically heroic at the end. SEHAR is a small-big film about unlikely heroes. The police force, often shown to be brutal and self-serving, gets a commendable pat on the back from first-time director Kabeer Kaushik in this biographical account of principled police-man Ajay Kumar (Arshad Warsi) fighting “absolute power” emanating from extra-constitutional guns in UP.
The film’s parched ambience and relentless stress on telling it like it is, make it a kind of documented drama that’s still rare in Hindi cinema. The characters are all familiar quasi-stereotypes: gun-toting law-unto-oneself type of anti-socials who have been done to bludgeoning death in the cinema of Govind Nihalani and Ram Gopal Varma.
What makes the age-old combat between Good and Evil in SEHAR reasonably riveting is the director’s single-minded focus on telling his story to the best of his abilities, no matter what it takes.
Kaushik sets his story about the elimination of a political mafia at the start of the 1990s. This strategized storytelling automatically provides the raconteur with opportunity to explore a certain kind of moral Diaspora that became prevalent in the last decade of the last millennium when politicians and criminals became bed partners. This association of statesmanship and crime isn’t new to cinema. And that’s where SEHAR loses its edge.
Not a single character strikes us as being uniquely designed. Kabeer Kaushik’s people are haunted by their present. The debutant director constantly creates tensions that are not carried to their extreme logical conclusions. Episodes in the life of the men on the Special Task Force (STF) are dealt with ruthless brevity. Calamities come. Calamities go… corruption goes on forever. This is how the narrative visualizes and formats its socio-political message.
Besides a sense of fatigue and déjà vu, what invalidates some of the sincerity in SEHAR is the absence of an edge to the episodes. A little boy is kidnapped by a dreaded Mafioso Gajraj (Sushant Singh). Within the next 3 sequences he’s rescued and the narrative moves on.
A fidgety format and a restless rhythm, inherited from the ad world, are not quite the antidote to corruption that cinema of social consciousness seeks. SEHAR could’ve gone a lot further in the quest of answers to the question of corruption. Instead, Kaushik turns around and moves into new conundrums every time he encounters a snag. Maybe his conscience can’t take the heat of the moment.
A peripheral character hits the nail on the head when he complains that the language used to explain the intricacies of the cell phone is unintelligible to the uninitiated. The politics of SEHAR isn’t really in intelligible to the average viewer. But it just doesn’t make you care enough to stare hard enough. The film lacks the motivated morality-thrust of Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. SEHAR is a film in search of a new dawn, and in a hurry to get there. The journey is by now means uninteresting. But the absence of deep-focus in the guerrilla warfare against the political mafia engenders a distracted and distended narrative.
The sincerity never slips up. Even the performances echo the director’s edgy unsent mentality. Pankaj Kapoor, of course! Playing a guy trying to unravel the mysteries of the cell phone (this is early 1990s, remember?) he is as unpredictable and engrossing as ever. It could be a directorial prerogative, but Sushant Singh’s don-to-death act is much too linear and stoic. Some of his brothers in arms strike us as more fleshed and bloodied.
Wish the same could be said of Mahima who has less screen space than Suhasini Mulay and makes less telling use of it. It’s Arshad Warsi’s intimate intensity as the cop grappling with a situation beyond his comprehension that holds you. Far less eager to please than Manoj Bajpai’s cop-in-corruption act in E Niwas’ SHOOL, Warsi plays it cool. The film unfortunately turns cold on many occasions for the lack of a forward thrust, until the train-borne climax where the cop and don finally come face to face.
It’s meant to be the don of a new era. SEHAR doesn’t quite get there. But it’s a well-intended try.