Azamgarh is a district in Uttar Pradesh. Among its celebrity landmarks are Shabana Azmi and Amar Singh. It can point out two of the best in intellectual scholarship – Kaifi Azmi and Rahul Sanskritayan.

The towns in the district have flowery names like Phulpur, musical names like Surhan, Sarai Rani and Sarai Mir and poetic names like Didarganj, Mehnajpur and Mahul. The three rivers, Chhoti Saryu, Ghagra and Tamsha jingle like bells in one’s ears. This is one area where the sex ratio is tilted in favour of the females at 1019 females to 1000 men.

But wait. It has 4101 villages, 11 Nagar Panchayats, only 2 Nagar Palika Parishads and 26 police stations to take care of its more than four-and-a-half million people. This is also the place where underworld don Abu Salem’s filing of his nomination papers for Parliamentary elections in October 2005 met with massive public response.

What is so special about Azamgarh? Of the 10,000 officially dead men and women in Uttar Pradesh till 1975, most belonged to Azamgarh, completing the circle of its inherent irony. For most of these ‘dead’ people, life is reduced to one long struggle to prove that they are officially and actually alive. The journey is an uphill climb and takes years to reach the finishing point.

Some of these officially ‘dead’ people may even actually die before they can prove that they are alive and regain their claim to their land, usurped by family members and relatives who set the whole ball rolling to declare these people ‘dead.’ These ‘dead’ people have formed the Mritak Sangh whose 300-odd members use the word ‘mritak’ meaning ‘late’ to their names. This Sangh was founded by one Lal Behari who first discovered that he was ‘dead’ when he applied for a loan at a local bank way back in 1975.

Kaagaz, released on January7 on ZEE5 presents a fictionalized account of the 19-year-long struggle of Lal Behari who discovered, by chance, that he was recorded as “dead” in official records everywhere. Satish Kaushik who has co-produced, written and directed the film, with Salman Khan Films as his co-producer, has changed the names and circumstances from the original but has managed somewhat, to hit at the core of the problem.

How does a man who is recorded and certified as “dead” or “mritak” on official records prove that he is not only alive and kicking and is also running a band orchestra, leading a contented family with wife and two kids and trying to save his band-baja business with a loan to expand it which lets out a poisonous snake ready to strike?

The story opens around 1975, towards the end of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, according to the voice-over and the film opens with Bharat Lal (Pankaj Tripathi), an ordinary band master in Amilo, a village in Azamgarh District in UP, struggling to keep his band alive. His wife Rukmini (Monal Gujjar) and some others suggest applying for a bank loan.

But the bank asks for collateral. Bharati Lal suddenly remembers that he has a share in the ancestral property back in a remote village and sets off to claim his share to present it as collateral. But he is in for one of the biggest shocks in his life. His harridan aunt and the three sonswho are goons, inform him without blinking an eye that they have recorded him as “dead” so he has no share and no land to talk of.

He comes back to Amilo, a disheartened man but determined to establish officially, on paper, that he is alive. The share in the ancestral property goes into the backburner and his life becomes a long and hard struggle just to establish that he is alive. His neighbours, the local people and all who know him now reduce him to a butt of their jokes, calling him “bhoot” not taking him seriously at all! So, the name Kaagaz.

Initially, Bharat Lal tries all official avenues to change his “death” status in the records of all offices he needs to frequent. He then tries desperately to get himself arrested so that an FIR can be framed against him and his name registered as an accused will automatically prove legally and on paper that he is alive. When all this fails, he files a case in the city court which again, proves that he is dead.

The arguments he places during the court hearing is one of the strong points of the film. “How can the court place more trust in a piece of paper than on me, standing here in front of you and being completely alive? That is just a piece of paper and here I am, with blood flowing in my veins, my voice loud in protest” leading to the judge warning him about contempt of court.

His warm, lovelorn exchanges with his pretty wife Rukmini who stays beside him through thick and thin offer some of the adoring moments in the film – soft, subtle and warm. But even she gives up and walks away one day with two kids to her uncle’s house in a different village and Bharat Lal has no clue how to bring her back. This frustration in his marriage does not deter him from meeting the lady political leader of the area (Mita Vashisht), which fails, so he gathers men facing the same problem of having been declare ‘mritak’ to form a valid organization the Mritak Sangh and this gives them some political power.

“Lal Behari contested in three Parliamentary elections, one against Rajeev Gandhi in Allahabad, one against V.P. Singh and the third against another Mritak Ramdas Yadav. For his long struggle in resurrecting himself from the ‘dead’, he won the parallel Nobel Prize called the Ig Nobel Prize for Peace in 2003,” Lal Behari does not add Mritak to his name anymore because his individual battle is over,” says documentary filmmaker adds Joseph. who made a long documentary called Walking Dead around 15 years ago.

This great crusader won the award for a triple accomplishment: First, for leading an active life even though he has been declared legally dead; second, for waging a lively posthumous campaign against bureaucratic inertia and greedy relatives; and third, for creating the Association of Dead People.

In terms of cinema, Kaagaz is good but it had much more powerful potential than Kaushik could put across. Pankaj Tripathi holds the film together almost entirely alone, justified considering that he plays the protagonist in the film and the entire narrative revolves around him. Monal Gujjar as his supporting wife is a good match. Satish Kaushik as the lawyer Bharat Lal appoints who is convinced that Bharat Lal’s is a lost case, gradually warms up to this simple and honest man and becomes a family friend almost like a guardian.

The lady journalist is just too pretty and sophisticated to fit into the rural milieu and her photographer comes close. The severely underutilized Mita Vashisht is good in a brief against-the-grain cameo of the local political leader while Amar Upadhyay as the local politician has too small a role to be noticed.

What takes your breath away is the brilliant production design and cinematography for the entire film, very carefully planned and executed, beginning with the small and cluttered band master’s shop, then walking us through Bharat Lal’s very humble home with gauzy paint, the humble court corridors, courtroom and court complex not to forget the grand ancestral mansion where Bharat Lal’s uncle’s family lives and the greenery Bharat Lal is seen cycling through established in long shots.

One touching scene is Bharat Lal, while returning heartbroken from his extended family’s home, comes across a funeral procession with a band party leading it. Bharat Lal picks the trumpet and joins the procession, marching across.

Kaushik’s intention to present the film through humour and satire flops because of needless interruptions like Bharat Lal’s action on the rat trouble in his shop, the trying-to-be-sizzling dance numbers used purely for entertainment, the cartoon-plus-villainous fleshing out of Bharat Lal’s evil cousins and the casual treatment of how and why Bharat Lal and his kin Mitraks actually discovered the corruption that leads to this evil practice that goes on unabated.

The songs are lovely and used as musical bridges. In other words, though the dialogue is filled with a lot of black humour, the script needed some tightening.

That said, one must concede that Kaagaz is a sharp and necessary comment on the destiny of an ordinary man in life and death.