Dir. Govind Nihalani
About two-thirds of the way through Govind Nihalani's Ardh satya, a retired rural cop (Amrish Puri) laments the difficulties that his son, Anant Velankar (Om Puri), is having as an urban police officer in Bombay. The senior Velankar paces, distraught and muttering. He taught his son how to conduct an "encounter" without leaving marks that could support brutality charges. And he urged his son not to move to the city - it's much easier in the villages to work out deals and cover-ups when things do go pear-shaped. In the city, there is too much pressure and too much oversight.
The senior Velankar is himself a violent, abusive man, and the son he raised did not want to be anything like him. Anant wanted to study philosophy, not join the police force. And having joined the force to appease his rageful, controlling father, he wants to do the job well and with integrity. As a young Bombay police inspector, though, Anant's idealism is quickly broken as he learns what the rules of the game that cops and gangsters play really are.
Anant's struggle with the truths and half-truths about the operation of evil in that society form the core of Ardh satya's bleak and sad and riveting study. The is not merely an exposé of police corruption and misconduct - it's likely that Nihalani's audience would have been well aware of such happenings and would not have needed them exposed. What makes the film so powerful is what it reveals about the toll these realities take on a human being who wants to rise above them but, being merely human, struggles to find the strength to do so.
Anant's superiors dance to the tune of the local gang boss, Rama Shetty (a chillingly charismatic Sadashiv Amrapurkar), a Bal-Thackeray-like figure who both runs illegal gambling and smuggling operations, and runs for political office. Anant arrests some of Shetty's men, and is appalled to see Shetty have them released with a single phone call. Soon after, Shetty extends an invitation to Anant, offering a sort of deal where each can benefit from the other's position.
Both Amrapurkar and Puri do intense things with their eyes.
Anant refuses, in disbelief and disgust. Still, Anant is no shining Dudley-Doright type; the violent temper he got from his father and a tendency to overdo the brutality in encounters gets him into trouble with his superiors, even in the context of the vicious practices of the Bombay police force. And when Anant does find himself facing discipline, the same shady palm-greasing that thwarts his own attempts to serve justice on Shetty now work to his benefit. The hypocrisy tears him apart.
Niahalani's telling of this bleak tale is deeply effective. With all his anger and flaws, Anant is a startlingly sympathetic character, with an anguished yearning to right his path, brought into sharp focus by his tender relationship with Jyotsna (Smita Patil), a college instructor with whom he shares philosophy and poetry. Jyotsna is Anant's respite from the vicious dark of his job; she seems to ground him in the world he wants to live in. But her hold isn't strong enough as the stresses mount; Anant begins drinking, even as a cautionary tale pops up now and again, in the form of a disgraced and pathetic alcoholic officer named Lobo (Naseeruddin Shah) who cannot let go of the fantasy that he will someday get his job back.
Jyotsna observes Anant's increasing distress with a loving but skeptical eye; as he becomes more troubled and erratic, she gives him mamy chances but ultimately chooses to protect herself, rather than get more deeply involved with a man so clearly headed toward tragedy. This is an unusual sort of agency to see in films, where women are generally self-sacrificing and dedicated to shouldering any burden to benefit the men they love. Instead, Jyotsna chooses to liberate herself, and it is both a relief and a heartbreak. Anant too achieves a sort of liberation in the end, consistent with his principles but in a far more tragic mode.
These are just a few of the unflinching elements that make Ardh satya shine though all its hardness and grit. The film is like a police thriller in which the filmi elements have been stripped away, leaving gut punches in place of dishoom-dishoom, and raw feeling in the place of melodrama. In one scene, Anant and his colleagues visit a dank den in which a bar dancer wears an outfit and does moves that wouldn't be out of place in a Helen song. But the sparkly escapism of Helen's songs is drained out of the image; it's monochrome and dark, tinged with a sour kind of dread, and the men leer the way filmi villains do, even the sympathetic Anant. In scenes like this, turning movie tropes on their heads, Ardh satya gets right under the skin.
Yeah, this is no Helen song.