When the boondocks of Bihar beckon, director Prakash Jha plunges headlong into the heart of darkness and emerges with a searing, unflinching film that dares to stare the truth in the face. He has done that twice in the past - first with the dark and offbeat exploration of rural exploitation, Damul, and then with the more conventionally structured ode to women's empowerment, Mrityudand. The two films are far and away the best work Jha has done to date as a director.
Any wonder then that he has returned to the troubled terrain he knows so well and feels so strongly about? This time around Jha has come up with the Rs 7-crore Gangajal, a film that seeks to recapture the horror of the infamous Bhagalpur blindings of the late 1970s within a tale that takes in the entire expanse of human relationships and social equations in contemporary India. "The film," reveals Jha, "is set in Bihar but it has been shot entirely in a place near Satara, Maharashtra."
"I had the whole place at my disposal for two months, so I thought of using it by recreating a small Bihar town there," he explains. He promises that viewers won't notice the difference. Gangajal, featuring the in-form Ajay Devgan and Gracy Singh in the lead, is scheduled for nationwide release on August 29. "The post-production is complete and the publicity campaign is on the road," says Jha.
Like any director who is out to buck the industry trend, Jha is a trifle worried. "The two-and-a-half-hour Gangajal does not have any songs nor does it have much of what the industry calls action scenes," he says. "Distributors always want to know whether a film has action. They believe that it is only action that sells," adds the filmmaker.
What does the film's title really refer to? Gangajal was the euphemism that Bhagalpur's policemen employed to describe the acid that was used to blind undertrials in the town's benighted jail.
Much water has flowed down the Ganga since Jha tasted success with the Madhuri Dixit-Shabana Azmi starrer Mrityudand. But he hasn't had much luck at the box office in recent years. Bandish, Dil Kya Karen and the Subhash Ghai-produced Rahul failed miserably to get going commercially. The hard-hitting Gangajal is clearly an attempt on the part of the determined and talented director to break out of the mould by once again blending a social conscience with market viability. It remains to be seen whether it turns the tide of Jha's career.