pioneering what’s now termed ‘new Bollywood’ says it’s not that hard to be different in Hindi cinema after all. You put together a film where the hero doesn’t lip-sync a song, and there are no dances, the film becomes different on its own. Deol is right.
I’d add the presence of a believable setting, something that’s conventional for most films, that can immediately mark itself as different for a Hindi movie as well.
This is, by that logic, a different film, as it were. Though a mellifluous Sufi song (Amit Trivedi) does conveniently express the bond between the hero, and his lovely next-door neighbour. The girl’s Muslim; the boy, Hindu. Soon as the father finds his daughter with the boy, the family quietly moves out of the neighbourhood. You can’t quite tell the purpose of this brief romance. Maybe it is to suggest times when segregation between Hindus and Muslims wasn’t complete. Such young love in the ghetto was still possible, or at any rate, imaginable. It isn’t anymore.
The film is set across the late ‘70s, through the ‘80s, until December, ’92 BC (Before Cellphone). The latter being that moment in Mumbai’s history, when the city truly lost its famed innocence. It revealed a communal underbelly unknown to even its residents, and exposed suddenly its sword-wielding rioting mobs that began to distinguish between its own, over a God you privately prayed to. The state was complicit to the crime. The culture and politics of Mumbai (or for that matter, Maharashtra) hasn’t remained the same since. The film latently expresses a similar sentiment.
As a young Hindu boy, Surya (Siddharth) moved from Nagpada into a “10 by 10” (hutment) in Malvani, a large claustrophobic Muslim neighbourhood in the far, northwestern suburb of Mumbai. Such rounding alleys bear few exit routes for the restless and ambitious. I suppose even Dubai isn’t a practical dream anymore.
Surya realises, “Mangne se milta nahin (You don’t get anything when you ask). Chheenna galat hai (Snatching is wrong). Jeetna hi padega -- you have to win, to survive, or hope for a better life. The kid’s a bit of a pro in Carrom, a parlour game that we don’t credit enough for being a sport only as indigenously Indian as kabaddi. Surya’s friend (Ankur Vikal, astoundingly real) becomes a sort of a manager. Aditya Panscholi plays the don. Carrom boards double up for gambling tables. Bets are placed on the star striker, the major “kheli” (player). He rarely disappoints. Such dens hide within several booby traps. Surya is bound to fall. He does.
Yet, this is neither a rags-to-success story of a national carrom champion (which it could’ve been). Nor is it a simplistic prequel to Satya’s Bhikhu Mhatre (that it seemed to be). The hero’s complex journey develops over such strong shades of black-gray that you could even shift uncomfortably on your seat as you watch the protagonist rape a girl he could’ve loved. The story is in the grittiness of experience. Judgment isn’t fed; purpose, not expressly defined. This can be a problem for certain audiences who like to be told everything: who’s the loved hero or feared villain, why to empathise, when to emote…
Sure this film is different then. Shouldn’t each be anyway? Worth it, all the way.