Madaari is a Fresh Take on an Old Formula of Vigilantism

Nishikant Kamat manages to raise some important questions in his latest, but none of them are exceptionally new.

A still from Madaari.

A still from Madaari.

The 2003 South Korean thriller Memories of Murder ends with the shot of a cop looking at the camera. Tired, desperate and hopeless, he’s been unable to nab the serial killer by the end of the film, which was based on a true story. The cop’s gaze implies that the serial killer is still out in the open. That he’s looking at him, involving the perpetrator and ultimately, us in the story.

A similar moment occurs in Nishikant Kamat’s latest, Madaari. Much like Memories of Murder, it too is “inspired by true events,” where Nirmal Kumar, a common man played by Irrfan Khan, looks at the camera of a television journalist, or, in effect, at us, trying to stir our conscience and implying that we’re complicit in this drama, too.

But, while Memories of Murder’s climactic scene is powerful, poignant, and iconic, its counterpart in Madaari stops short of being remarkable or impressive. And it’s probably so because Madaari, unlike the South Korean classic, is both raising the questions and providing the answers. And none of them are exceptionally new.

The question, quite simply, is this: How should a common man assert his identity in a country whose politicians, bureaucrats, and moneymen have rendered him redundant and impotent?

The answer, furthered by a lot of Hindi films, is this: vigilante justice.

These films seek to restore the balance of power, taking law from the hands of lawmakers, putting politicians and their politics in spotlight, robbing them of power, showing what a common man, when pushed to the brink, is capable of.

The sight and sound of revolution is undoubtedly cinematic, and it’s not surprising that Hindi films based on vigilante justice appeal to filmmakers, especially in a country where corruption is an everyday reality, and citizens are seen as vote banks and their collective identity acknowledged once every five years.

Be it Nayak, Rang De Basanti, A Wednesday, Ungli, Gulab Gang or the last ten minutes of Mardaani, the societal power structure in all of them is inverted in lieu of a wish fulfilment fantasy, where ‘we’ are finally giving it back to ‘them’, reclaiming what had been denied to us for long— dignity and the acknowledgement of the fact that we exist.

These films, no matter how earnest, are however stuck in a strange bog for their settings and characters are real, but their methods are not. They treat the country and its problems like a PowerPoint presentation, fixated on finding a solution in neat bullet points. And there’s not much that can be done about it as it’s the limitation of the sub-genre. So Madaari, when viewed through those constrictions, is a compelling drama and in some moments, it’s also impressive.

We understand Madaari’s central conflict less than a minute into it: the home minister’s son is missing from his boarding school and efforts are quickly underway to find the kidnapper.

This information is relayed to us in the film’s opening credits, alongside other pressing problems of the country: farmer suicides, Maoist insurgencies and crumbling civic amenities as if implying that the film’s story of human avarice, venality and callousness isn’t remarkable in any way. That it’s just one of the many stories vying for attention in the country.

But Kamat doesn’t simply want to piggyback on the film’s ‘message’, he also wants us to buy its filmmaking and emotional truths, something that, given his recent track record, is both surprising and refreshing.

To begin with, Kamat stages his films like a thriller. For the major portion of the film, for instance, we don’t know why Nirmal, an ordinary man, has kidnapped the son of a minister. Shortly, we know the reason, but only a part of it: Nirmal says he lost his son, but he won’t say how or when. The cat and mouse game between Nirmal and a young investigative officer, Nachiket (Jimmy Shergill), keeps the narrative taut.

It’s heartening to note that Kamat’s first allegiance is towards the story he’s telling. There’re calculated moments of tension in the film, the payoffs are smartly delayed and the backstory is revealed in small portions, keeping us hooked.

At one point Nirmal begins narrating his story to Rohan, the eight-year-old son of the minister, explaining his motives to him. But then he abruptly stops, intentionally delaying the moment of catharsis for his loss is monumental, something that’ll take multiple recounts. It’s a choice that carries both emotional and narrative import.

We understand Nirmal’s mindscape, but at the same time, also recognise the filmmaker desire to conceal his central character’s motivations so that the film is always a step ahead of us.

It is in small moments and decisions like these that Madaari emerges a better film, trying to win us over by screenwriting and filmmaking guile. And even though there’re more than a few scenes where the plot’s credibility is dubious, like when Nirmal somehow manages to find a robust internet connection in every rural part of the country— a situation that’s critical to the story, you don’t quite mind its vigour.

But a film like Madaari can’t escape its preordained climax where a common man dictates terms to people in power, winning a battle on our behalf that we’ve been losing all along.

Madaari, like other films of its ilk, makes the ultimate victory seem so easy, so obvious, as if the country can be shaken out of its stupor by just one citizen gone astray. To its credit though, Madaari does recogonise that it’s nothing more than a wish fulfilment fantasy (through a clever scene, winking hard at us, in its final act) and doesn’t take itself seriously at all times.

The film is earnest, hopeful and in some heightened dramatic moments, even naïve. But it’s also, for the most part, intelligent enough to know that its idealism can work, and be aspired for only within the confines of a film.