Much water has rippled under the bridge since Nasir Khan played an upright policeman who takes on his deviant brother (real-life sibling Dilip Kumar) in Nitin Bose's Ganga Jumna (1961). The Hindi movie cop has assumed varied avatars in the past 40 years but not since Ardh Satya's dysfunctional Anant Welankar has a screen policeman been as close to the bones as the protagonist of Prakash Jha's Gangaajal, a disturbing portrayal of a lawless small town in the boondocks of Bihar.
Jha's protagonist - an idealistic IPS officer on his first posting - has to dig deep into his reserves of moral courage and physical strength to achieve his mission. But under the uniform that he wears with obvious pride, Superintendent of Police Amit Kumar, played brilliantly by Ajay Devgan, is a real, believable, flesh and blood figure. He spouts only an occasional heroic line. He does not possess a larger than life swagger. He does not even serenade his newly married wife with mushy ditties. He isn't a typical angry Hindi movie cop.
Indeed, there is little in the Gangaajal protagonist that is heroic in the conventional sense. In fact, scriptwriter-director Jha opts to present him mostly without his uniform. Consequently, the film is mercifully free of high-sounding tirades about the honour of the khaki vardi.
Amit Kumar is thwarted at every step by a fast degenerating law enforcement system, intimidated by a well-ensconced politician-policeman-criminal nexus and constantly wracked by doubts but he is always acutely aware of both the inviolability of his personal moral code and the significance of his exalted social role. The subtle nuances inherent in the treatment of the main character, and that of his just as clearly etched colleagues in the police station, sets Gangaajal well apart from all the cop films of the past: Zanjeer, Ardh Satya and Shool, to name only a few.
Amit Kumar is definitely unlike Zanjeer's Vijay, who mutates from a man in uniform to an unfettered vigilante. The Gangaajal protagonist hates taking recourse to physical force to get his way. But ironically, given the corrupt system he works within, pent-up anger often gets the better of him. It is just one such moment of weakness - he comes down heavily on two henchmen of the town's ganglord, Sadhu Yadav (Mohan Joshi) - that triggers the turning point of Gangaajal. His subordinates (played by a fine array of supporting actors) mercilessly assault the two criminals in the police lock-up before pouring acid into their eyes.
The character of Amit Kumar does capture a bit of the frustration that Welankar might have felt in Ardh Satya, but he is far removed from the social misfit of Govind Nihalani's 1983 film. Amit Kumar's moral universe is a scared space and he brooks no compromise on that score. He hates the law-breakers and their protectors - "bloody criminals all of them," he growls in one scene - but he resists the fascist methods the townspeople advocate. Anant Welankar, unable to live down the memories of a brutally violent father and thwarted by the system, vents his spleen on petty criminals. Amit Kumar does nothing of that sort - he plays strictly by the rules.
Gangaajal is also different from Shool in one crucial respect - its overall positive note. The cop-hero of Shool, caught in a situation not too different from Amit Kumar's, hurtles down the path of self-destruction. He loses his head - and happiness - in the pursuit of his goal. There is nary a glimmer of hope in his story. Gangaajal, in contrast, is about a policeman who uses his head just as much as he uses his heart. No wonder, he gets his point across in the end despite all the seemingly insurmountable hurdles that are strewn in his way.
If there is one screen policeman Amit Kumar resembles to a certain extent it is ACP Srinivasan of Ramgopal Varma's classy underworld drama, Company. The physical attributes of the two actors, Mohanlal and Devgan, are poles apart. One is rotund and avuncular, the other is lean and intense - but both make an impact that adds to the power of their respective films, besides redefining the Hindi film policemen.
With his superbly crafted film, Jha has clearly raised the bar for all policeman heroes to come. A spate of high-profile cop films is in the pipeline. They now have a really hard act to follow.