There are two types of Bollywood police dramas — the heroic, pro-police kind that shows men in uniform fighting the good fight against all odds and the action comedy. Or so we think. Because Hindi cinema has rarely gone into what it really means to be a policeman in India, with its myriad problems. Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya, starring Om Puri and Smita Patil, took that leap and showed a slice of the dark world inhabited by Indian law enforcement.
The 1983 film, written by celebrated playwright Vijay Tendulkar, follows the story of sub-inspector Anant Velankar. An upright, strict and idealistic man, Velankar is a policeman who goes by the book even in the stickiest of situations. He meets Jyotsna (Patil), a college professor, and falls in love as he finds respite in her company from a career he was forced into by his abusive father (Amrish Puri). On the job, he encounters a local mafia boss, Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar), who has half the police force and politicians in his pocket. In case after case, Velankar sees that his will to do the right thing is thwarted by corruption and red tape. He tries to take down Shetty multiple times, but fails thanks to the latter’s political clout — Velankar even gets suspended twice, trying to arrest Shetty and his men. When the weight of the real, ugly world comes crashing around him, he takes to the bottle, so much so that his relationship with Jyotsna is threatened.
Ardh Satya is an unsettling watch, because of the hopelessness that underlines every scene. Velankar, who believes in black and white, is constantly haunted by memories of his mother, who is abused by his father and his inability to help her in any way. Every time he tries to do the right thing, arrest criminals and protect citizens, he comes face to face with the inevitability that he actually cannot help. The guilt of his childhood, muddled with the growing frustration of feeling the same feeling of helplessness, drives him to the brink of insanity. He is also often told of other officers who took to alcoholism to numb the pain and ended up with nothing in life. While he doesn’t pay much attention at first, convinced that he is made of sterner stuff, he grows restless with the thought as his bad days progress.
Puri as the tortured, upright policeman does a stellar job. He masterfully balances Velankar’s idealism and naivete with the conflicts he faces. Patil as Jyotsna, does well as the outsider looking into Velankar’s world. She challenges his belief system and the system he serves. She stands up for what she believes in and makes sure that he knows it, too.
The two stars of the film, both of whom had birth anniversaries this past week, are the story. They brought out their characters’ struggle and anguish with an expertise that has become a rarity now. A volatile story such as this one would have had to be handled with subtlety, care and passion that only Patil and Puri could have done. With Ardh Satya, which is just as relevant and hard-to-swallow today, their legacies live on as the mirrors of society.