The parallels with recent history are hard to miss. A young Muslim boy who nurses wounds of indignity and itches to take revenge on a Hindu policeman. A compromising top cop who links his future to an ideologically aligned chief minister. A bomb blast near a Ganesha temple; RDX packed into a motorbike by young Muslims and the ensuing riots after the blast. A CM who says people’s anger must be allowed an outlet (so blatantly Gujarat 2002). His lackey roams the burning city in an open jeep, directing his boys to plunder, rape, burn. People in power preventing FIRs being filed, the top cop sitting in the CM’s office directing his officers to stand by while people and property burn. A brave girl who eventually stands up to be counted and helps the cause of justice.
The only element with no real-life parallel is Dev (played by Bachchan) himself, a senior policeman who does act when his city burns. He keeps his devoutness outside his uniform, takes a near-Gandhian view of Hindu-Muslim relations, and pays for it with his life. Dev is fictional, representative of how the police force ought to be—upright, immune to corruption of lucre or ideology, sensitive to the human beings behind the statistics and stereotypes, seeking to dispense justice.
It’s a measure of the ideological corruption of the force across India that Delhi 1984, Mumbai 1993 or Gujarat 2002 palpably lacked a Joint Commissioner Dev Pratap Singh. Police officers who showed some spine were silenced or shunted out by political bosses. When his CM asks him to drop charges against his lackey, Dev is able to retort: "I am a servant of the Constitution, sir. Main koi bhi aise kaam karne ke liye tayyar nahin hoon jiski anumati samvidhan nahin deta (I am not prepared to do any such work that the Constitution does not permit)."
For Nihalani, 18 films old, Dev is a coming together of two dominant themes—communalism, which he explored so deftly in the acclaimed Tamas, and moral decay in our police force that inspired his brilliant Ardh Satya. "The very disturbing trend of our forces, our constitutional offices, being corrupted by communal ideology is real. Once we decided to address communalism, we researched and chose incidents that best depict the situation but told the story through human drama and two principal characters," says an exhausted and relieved Nihalani.
He made Joint Commissioner Tejinder Khosla or Tej (Om Puri) representative of the sort of policeman who barks from conviction that "Muslims are the fountainhead of problems; they ought to be killed like dogs in the street."
Unsurprising in the light of the context and the subject matter, rumblings about the film have begun. In Gujarat one litigant has asked for a stay on the film. Trouble in Bijapur saw some delays in screenings. In interior Maharashtra a few audiences began shouting "Har Har Mahadev" to drown out a Muslim leader’s soliloquy.
"People have said it’s anti-Muslim, others have said it’s anti-Hindu. And some of my friends are checking if I am a closet rss chap," laughs Nihalani. Still, he risked making the Rs 10-crore film because he believes it’s important to engage with social issues, because the audience is ready to be surprised, and because Manmohan Shetty backed him.
Says Shetty: "I saw potential. Such a film was economically viable if it had, say, Amitabh Bachchan. This made the difference; so we could make an issue-based film in Bollywood’s format."
Yet mainstream Bollywood’s cliche-sodden style doesn’t lend itself to handling a sensitive subject like communalism with recent references. For instance, the motivations of Bachchan’s character are initially ambiguous, though it’s unclear why. The music score, though excellent, just doesn’t gel with the film. And Dev drags, in pacing and structure as well as in overall length. These are not trivial objections. Anyone who’s seen Ardh Satya knows what Nihalani is capable of when he does make a good movie.
Yet Dev’s faults recede somewhat in the face of the statement it makes both on and off screen—one good cop or a tough administration can make a difference in communally volatile situations; and it is certainly possible to marry serious issues without straying too far from the Bollywood format. Dev is a Bollywood risk, mainstream cinema’s only statement against the horrors of communalism as seen in Gujarat 2002.
On balance, Dev makes it to the positive side of Nihalani’s career balance sheet, essentially because recent reality resonates so unmistakably. If only it had been a better, shorter film.