Govind Nihalani and 40 Years Of ‘Ardh Satya’
Perhaps the first film to critique India’s political power
Govind Nihalani's films have archival value because they are shocking, violent and intense. He does not use these to shock his viewers but structures them within the story and the script. His characters, both male and female, good or bad, are strong, honest and serious about their convictions about a particular issue or subject.
All of Nihalani's films from Aakrosh to Dev are character-driven and not intrinsically story-driven. The films are studies of how characters' beliefs, interactions, work etc, placed within a specific time and space backdrop, lead to events that change their lives.
Nihalani’s films are shocking, violent and intense, but that is not intentionally done for shock value but is structured within the story and the script. His characters are rich in terms of their literary source, ideas and ideology.
They are highly value-oriented, and most significantly, they offer one of the best examples of how to create excellent lighting and a sound script that are high both on aesthetic value and sociological comment.
The deep influence of theatre due to his long association with Satyadev Dubey, has often made him borrow his acting cast generously from theatre. Examples are Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri, Achyut Poddar, Shafi Inamdar, Mohan Agashe, Rohini Hattangady, Mita Vashisht, Arvind Deshpande,and others.
Theatre also inspired Nihalani to ask playwrights Vijay Tendulkar and Mahesh Eklunchwar to do the screenplays of several of his films, from ‘Aakrosh’ to ‘Party’.
The year 2023 marks 40 years of Nihalani’s feature film ‘Ardh Satya’ (1983). The film is now a classic that underscored the significance of a specific kind of cinema that had a tremendous impact on the audience and on the history of cinema in India.
Nihalani based ‘Ardh Satya' on a short story Surya, by Da Panvalkar and a thematic poem penned by the famous Dilip Chitre. The poem forms the ideology of the film and the confusion of its hero Anant Welankar (Om Puri), forced to join the police force by his policeman father, that is read out from Jyotsna Gokhale’s (Smita Patil) poetry book. It is one of her favourite poems.
The two words in the title of the film, ‘ardh’ meaning ‘half’ and ‘satya’ meaning ‘truth’ is the ideology that reaches beyond the sum of the meaning of the two words, ‘half truth.’ Can truth really be dished out in halves? Alternatively, can a ‘half’ represent the truth?
Is Welankar’s discomfiture with his police uniform, which demands that he compromise with the underworld against his wishes, an extension of his fear at leashing out against his father, who he saw bashing up his mother at the slightest pretext?
The half shades evoked by the title of the film find visual and sound-centric dramatisation through the systematic alternation of night sequences with days sequences, and also in the actual sounds of anger expressed by Welankar in different situations and contexts.
Every act of anger, accompanied by loud sound features, is actually an expression of anger directed at himself. The anger is at his failure to break the corruption within the system he is a part of, and at his inability to cope with this failure.
In the scene where Welankar pulls out a co-passenger in the public bus to beat him up black and blue for trying to harass Jyotsna Gohakle, the sound and vision is the pent up anger he could not express when his father was beating up his mother all the time and he could do nothing about it.
Welankar gets into a brief relationship with Gohakle (Smita Patil) who teaches in a college. under her simple exterior, is a scrutinising mind. She has doubts about strains of violence in Welankar as she begins to research old newspaper reports of police atrocities.
She feels Welankar has inherited his father’s genes and breaks up with him despite his appeals and the relationship comes to an end, making Anant lonelier than he was. Amrish Puri as Anant Welankar’s cop father offers a counterpoint as a violent husband and father.
Welankar’s anger and failure to protest his mother is ingrained into him too, but turns out through acts of violence against anyone who is violent to women.
The sound metaphors in ‘Ardh Satya’ are mainly those of Welankar bashing up someone, lashing out at his father within his alcoholic stupor, and trying to get out of that slurred speech when Gohakle comes knocking. Welankar tries to face her with a brave face only to alienate her from himself forever.
When he bashes up the prisoner in jail that leads to the young chap’s death, one hears only the sound of blows as the captive boy’s whimpering slowly fades into silence.
In the film, in a night scene, Bhaskar, the forthright editor of the local newspaper is getting ready to sleep. He does the normal bedtime routines, and a melodious song is played on the radio. A perfect setting for bedtime, and the audience is calmed down.
But what you do not know is that Nihalani has been setting the audience up for the shock. a bottle crashes into the windows, shakes you up completely and switches you from that lazy bedtime setting to that of fear and shock. The effect is dramatic.
All his films are replete with scenes played near light sources. This kind of lighting, and character placement around it, draws the attention of the audience to the character which can easily get distracted when too many objects are in the same frame.
This is evident in his later mainstream work ‘Dev’ which did not fare well commercially but turned out to be a hard-hitting film.
The other strong element of sound in Ardh Satya is that of the motorbike Welankar uses in his police job. The sound of the motorbike with Welankar astride it, riding across the streets of Mumbai wearing tinted glasses defines the evolution of the weak and cowardly young man oppressed by a dominating and oppressive father, to a policeman vested with seemingly infinite physical, official and political power.
‘Ardh Satya’ is perhaps the first Indian film that stands out as a sharp-edged critique of the ‘political leaders-cum-mafia’s power over the police force.
This power automatically gets enhanced, and at the same time, underlines the corruption of the police force. Welankar is perhaps the first cop of his time to give it back to the mafia lord, played by Sadashiv Amrapurkar).
He is disguised as the local politician by killing him, but instead of bagging a medal for his courage, he is suspended from the police force. When Welankar comes to his home to arrest him, the man coolly says, “come tomorrow, I will not go today” sounding more like a command instead of a request.
We are already introduced to a former cop who has been thrown out for his stand against playing up to the political leaders and turns into a wayward alcoholic, reduced to losing his job and literally begging on the streets for his livelihood. Nasrudeen Shah becomes a symbolic warning for Welankar.
‘Ardh Satya’ bagged the Golden Peacock for Best Film, International Film Festival of India National Award for Best Hindi Film, the National Award for Best Actor to Om Puri and the Best Supporting Actor to Sadashiv Amrapurkar for his role of the local politician.
The most outstanding feature of the film lies in Dilip Chitre’s poem that ‘Ardh Satya’ is inspired by. Translated from the original Marathi into English, the poem reads as follows:
“Ardh Satya – Dilip Chitre
Before entering the circle of enemies, who I was and how was I,
I could not remember…
After entering it there was only dangerous nearness
between me and the circle and I wasn't aware of it.
After getting out of the circle
I would become free for sure,
but there will not be any change in the structure itself whether I die or kill will never be decided.
When a man starts walking after waking from sleep
He can never see the world of dreams again
In this light, the light of decision, will everything be equal?
On one side of the balance is cowardice and on the other is courage.
Precisely in the centre of the measuring rod, is half-truth.”