Friday, June 11, 2004


It had to be said, and somebody had to say it. Better Govind Nihalani than anybody else—at least you can’t doubt his sincerity and total commitment to the cause.

We read about the Mumbai riots, Gujarat riots, the Bilquis case, the Best Bakery case and tut-tutted about the cops not doing their duty. Nihalani’s Dev looks the issue in the face, and says, yes, there is communalism in the police force, yes the politicians are involved on both sides of the communal divide and yes, Muslim youth are being misled by their leaders—no pussy footing around the problem here.

Dev Pratap Singh (Amitabh Bachchan) is the kind of cop who believes in the law and, shoots without qualms, a student protester to shows disrespect for the law. But he is able to put aside his personal trauma (his son was killed by militants) and differentiate between right and wrong, while his best buddy Tej (Om Puri) flaunts his anti-Muslim beliefs.

Their principles are tested when a communal conflagration takes place in a Muslim-dominated area in Mumbai. It starts with opportunistic Muslim leader Lateef (Ehsaan Khan) politicizing the gunning down of a gangster. In the melee that follows the pacifist Ali, father of just graduated lawyer Farhan (Fardeen Khan) is killed. Lateef uses Farhan’s rage to engineer an attack on Dev, then cons him into participating in bomb blast at a temple. Chief minister (Amrish Puri) gives his cohort Mangalrao (Milind Gunaji) a free hand in taking revenge.

The cops are ordered not to intervene as rioters attack the Muslim mohalla. Dev’s conscience does not permit him to let the injustice go unpunished. Going against Latif’s diktat Farhan’s beloved Aaliya (Kareena Kapoor) decides to cooperate with Dev in nailing the rioters.

This makes Mangalrao go on a rampage and puts Dev and Tej on opposite sides of a deep ideological divide.

Nihalani brings up a whole lot of contemporary issues that must, at some time or other, troubled all right-thinking people, but having said that, it must be pointed out that the film seems to exist in a very small microcosm. The action takes place in a little, one-lane area, under Dev’s jurisdiction, with no apparent repercussions anywhere else in the city or country. The immense problem of Islamic terrorism or Hindu fanaticism couldn’t possibly be revolving just around a tiny, ill-fated Muslim ghetto?

Dev reacts to the communal problem as if it is a recent phenomenon—his calling Muslim leaders to discuss the indoctrination of Muslim youth in madarsas, for instance; or his almost naïve horror at Tej’s deviousness. Mumbai (not to mention several other places in India) has witnessed communal riots and bomb blasts in the past; the matter of police and political complicity has come up – of which a cop of his seniority must be aware.

Dev weeps in anguish (a scene performed with hypnotic magic by Bachchan) when he witnesses arson in the Muslim mohalla, and puts his life on the line for justice for Aaliya and other victims, but shows no reaction when a bomb blast takes place at a temple. Even though Farhan, an obvious suspect, is loitering around the area he is not picked up for questioning.

The political bargaining that goes on between the Muslim and Hindu is too perfunctory to be convincing. Also, today, the media is almost omnipresent, a fact that Nihalani ignores. Such lacunae in the work of a director as accomplished as him are unexpected.

In trademark Nihalani style there are too many lengthy debates between Dev and Tej (over single malt!) which don’t convey anything much. In fact the emphasis on Dev’s personal tragedy somewhat dilutes the issue by overstating it – that this man is not prejudiced in spite of his son’s death. His treating Farhan as a surrogate son is also a bit too pat.

Still, the film is powerful, disturbing (good work by writer Meenakshi Sharma) and refreshingly idealistic at a time when filmmakers shy away from taking a stand of any kind.

And Nihalani is helped in no small measure by excellent performances by Amitabh Bachchan, Om Puri and Kareena Kapoor. Bachchan delivers more than expected—if that is possible-- every line, every expression, every vocal inflection is just right! Kareena’s performance displays an intelligence and depth that is rare for one her age, and that too with a mainstream background. Om Puri, it would seem, is incapable of giving a bad performance. Fardeen Khan does what he can with a comparatively weak part. Adesh Shrivastav comes up with a haunting Sufi-tinted score.

A few truly memorable moments make Dev worth a watch. But don’t expect ‘conventional’ entertainment!


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