Film: "Halla Bol"; Cast: Ajay Devgan, Pankaj Kapoor, Vidya Balan;
Direction: Raj Kumar Santoshi; Rating: *** 1/2
Some filmmakers entertain while others inform. A handful of celluloid visionaries do both. Raj Kumar Santoshi belongs to that rare breed of filmmakers who opens up thought-processes about the state of the nation, without losing the "cinematic" element in his films.
"Halla Bol" belongs to the same unique hard-hitting gut-wrenching genre of cinema as Santoshi's "Damini", "Ghaatak" and the under-rated "Lajja". The overall product lacks finesse and parts of the plot (for instance where hero Ajay Devgan, who plays an actor, pees on the villain's Persian rug) come across as labored.
Sameer Khan (Ajay Devgan) is a superstar. He has the world at his feet, but his life changes when two people kill a girl in front of him in a high-profile Page Three party. One of the killers is the son of a politician and the other a liquor baron.
No one, including Sameer, helps the police nab the culprits. Conscience, however, tugs at Sameer later and he undergoes a metamorphosis. "Halla Bol" reminds one of the famous Jessica Lal murder case in New Delhi - in which model-cum-host Jessica was gunned down in a restaurant in 1999.
The message that masses need to arise from their slumber rings out loud and clear. Brutality is often superimposed on a laidback lyricism in Santoshi's not-so-mellow-dramas. He sees the middle class as a "collectively cowardly mass" waiting to be prodded awake.
Earlier Sunny Deol used to serve these wakeup calls. Now it's Ajay Devgan for Santoshi. In "Halla Bol", the actor gets to grab a glorious graph as he goes from being a committed street-theatre performer to a corrupt screen superstar and finally a socially conscious citizen who stands up for a worthy cause. The script is full of "passionate" rhetoric (articulately written by Santoshi).
The scenes come alive because of the characters' ability to transcend the occasionally trite material and communicate the gripping drama of social awakening through words and expression that suggest a link between pop-art and a socio-political manifesto. Disembodied news clippings from news channels coalesce urgently with the larger picture as Santoshi takes swipes at the establishment.
The swinging fortunes of the small-time actor Ashfaque to Sameer Khan is peppered with arresting interludes from the entertainment business. The buzz and the bitching, the hypocrisy and the promiscuity - they all get a wide margin in the cannily written plot that weaves conscience into a tale with flair.
While Devgan gets seriously explorative once again (playing a character who goes from vain and libidinous to repentant and heroic), it is Pankaj Kapoor who gives a sterling performance as Devgan's conscience-keeper. Supremely confident in his space, Kapoor plays a street-theatre artiste who was once a warrior. It's by far one of the most interesting and multi-layered scripts written for a character actor, and one that gives this underused actor a chance to deliver rabble-rousing rhetoric, without getting pulpit-friendly.
In a plot that favours male actors, Vidya Balan makes silent space for herself. She has just three major sequences. "Halla Bol" towers over the average potboilers because it puts across home truths in a language that tends to get shrill, but never shallow.
The war cry comes in a raging spurt of indignant creativity in "Halla Bol". Effectively scripted and with dialogues that propel the plot to a climax without moving ahead of itself, the narrative conveys the angst it wants to.
On this occasion, Santoshi has a lot to say about the "conscience and the celebrity". He also speaks about the misuse of the minority card by politicians. Though shot with an eye for the personality-defining details by cameraman S. Natarajan Subramaniam, some portions of the tale appear tacky when compared with the enormity of the theme. Maybe, editor Steven Bernard needed to exercise more economy of expression.
"Halla Bol" may not strike you as being the epitome of subtle social reformism. Its tone is more of a street play than a Sunday-evening curio at Prithvi Theatre. But what's truly remarkable about Santoshi's cinema is the multiplicity of ideas and themes on contemporary India that come into play through cinematic devices.
If on one hand, you hear Jackie Shroff discussing Aamir Khan's run-in with the Gujarat government, on the other we have Sayali Bhagat popping in for an item song. The spectrum is vast and baggy. And yes there are strong words against the politics of minorityism and the cult of celebrity bashing.
One may think Raj Kumar Santoshi has bitten more than he can chew. But that's a mistake. This filmmaker can create tensions in the plot without allowing the pressure of balancing the "formula" with the "ideas" to show up in the product.
The product never actually ends. For Santoshi's morally conflicted protagonists, there's always another beginning.