AB TAK CHAPPAN : MOVIE REVIEW ( Fifty-Six Till Now )
5 STARS OUT OF 5 ( MASTERPIECE ON DEBUT )
DIRECTOR : SHIMIT AMIN
WRITER : SANDEEP SHRIVASTAVA
PRODUCER : RAM GOPAL VARMA, SHABUDDIN CHOUDHARY
2004, HINDI ( ENGLISH SUBTITLES AVAILABLE )
AB TAK 100 / 100
A masterpiece on directorial debut is as rare as achieving justice against a powerful person. Shimit Amin - born in Uganda, reared in Florida - directs this Mumbai flick as if he’s been haunting this neck of the woods for ages. Pic is a lean, mean ferociously focused police-‘n’-gangsters saga that hooks the flavours of Bombay and nails the ethos of re-emerging India. Nana Patekar gives the finest performance of his career with restrained knife-edge beauty – a top-cop caught in the maelstrom of crooked superiors and his professional enemies who look to take full advantage of a changed milieu. The writer is Sandeep Shrivastava – his CV is shorn of prestige titles otherwise – but he flies high here expressly distilling the brutal politics of a megapolis. Behind it all is the Baap of Bombay’s movie gangsterdom – R.G.V – the triumvirate of his expertly observed ‘Satya-Shool-Company’ productions informing the soul of Ab Tak Chappan.
First shot starts with shoes ( they’re medium size but big to fill ) on a beach and shot pans over footsteps on sand that eventually frame plain-clothes police inspector Sadhu Agashe. He tells us that he joined the police force in 1985, nineteen years ago, the desk grind giving way nine years later to a plain-clothes role in the “Special Force”. The gun is often out of the holster now, aimed at Bombay’s gangsters who have made the city a seething hell-hole.
In real-life, it peaked in the mid-nineties with the city’s movie and business personalities infested with extortion calls from the underworld. Those who refused to pay up were sometimes gunned down, creating a terminal atmosphere of corruption and fear. Fed-up with these murderers who beat the courts, the police force decided there was only one way to deal with these criminals – blow their brains out at the first given chance. Opening credit thanks D.Shivanandan ( Indian Police Service) and Sub Inspector Daya Nayak ( Maharashtra Police). Movie starts with Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote “ He who fights monsters must take care lest he become a monster”. That author is one of Varma’s favourites – an indication of how much influence the producer had on the script.
The scene next to the brief opening one is a neat intro to how Sadhu Agashe treats some of his targets. Sitting down at a dhaaba next to a gangster, he begins pulling his gun out and the gangster screams in fear thinking he’s going to be shot dead. Sadhu puts his hand over the other’s shoulder, calms his down and takes him into confidence. You can’t jump all your targets.
Police Commissioner Pradhan ( a magnificently compassionate Mohan Agashe ) has a chat with a politician, presumably from the Home Ministry. The lawmaker tells him Sadhu may be taking things too far with these extra-judicial killings but the commissioner politely says that this is not a fair contention, averring that the city is safer now thanks to the special force. Inspector Sadhu Agashe however is not lying on a bed of roses in his department. He may have a crucial bunch of loyal associates but his second-in-command – Imtiaz Siddiqui ( an effortlessly villainous Yashpal Sharma ) – is corrupt to the bone, and overly keen on gunning down gangsters to add to the list in his red diary.
For a masterclass in filming a conversation, look no further than the early scene where a fresh-faced sub inspector Jatin Shukla ( an excellently straight-arrow Nakul Vaid ) arrives at the criminal investigation ( C.I) department office to take charge. He probably thinks it will be a proper police station but with an India Pakistan cricket match underway, the small high-mounted TV in the station has become the apple of everyone’s eye, these gun-firing intrepid cops now sitting neatly in chairs in front of the TV, shouting and ogling the match like schoolboys. Sadhu asks Jatin to come over and sit down but never once looks at him, as Jatin sits behind and a little to the left of him. Sadhu always speaks in a controlled voice but here his tone is extra soft – not only for the match etiquette but also for the purposes of a senior gently but firmly interrogating a newbie. On being asked his name, Jatin says “Jatin Shukla” – Sadhu asks him “ Don’t you have a father ? “ ; “Yes I do” ; “Then tell your full name “ ; “Jatin Janardhan Shukla”. Jatin answers his boss’s questions with calm confidence while Sadhu silently realizes the boy may have some spine. The shot looks at them from the front – Sadhu in focus, Jatin at the back slightly out of focus, occasionally cutting to single-frame Jatin – the match noise in the background, the soft conversation in front. Finally, Sadhu asks him whether he has thought of the ethics when he was torturing a suspect in the cell. Jatin’s answer is short but visceral – and Sadhu turns around for the first time to see who this bloke actually is.
Commissioner Pradhan and Sadhu share a relationship of enviable understanding, despite the hierarchy. When the moment comes for change, Pradhan’s counsel to Sadhu has scriptural depth in its wisdom and brevity. There is a moment of stunning tenderness in which we see how the relationship they share is close to that of father and son.
Things kick up when Sadhu’s senior changes from the tough but larger-good gent to the tough and totally amoral Suchak. Pic’s casting is a never-ending succession of bulls-eyes. The expert Mohan Agashe now cedes ground to Jeeva – an actor from Andhra Pradesh who has seared the screen with his two appearances in Hindi cinema till this juncture – one, a rabid gangster in ‘Satya’ , and two, a softly spoken but completely venomous, always subtly striking police commissioner in ‘Ab Tak Chappan’.
A snake eats smaller prey, and a king cobra eats the snake – so it is with Suchak. The gentle well-behaved ragging or hazing which Sadhu dispenses only for a few moments towards Jatin in their first meeting, is eclipsed by the treatment Suchak gives to his underling in his inaugural press conference. When Sadhu enters the room, the reporters peel away from the commissioner on the podium and gravitate towards Sadhu, photographing and doting on him – to the obvious displeasure of commissioner Suchak. He meets his junior with a second or two of pleasantries before gently biting his head off. The inspector is told that his court cases for alleged extra-judicial killings are a total disgrace to the whole police and he is given a warning to either co-operate with the senior commissioner or be thrown out of the team. Jeeva – as this big daddy – is a beaut of oily smooth poison – the soft South Indian accented, measured voice belying a cold evil that coolly and persistently insults you and mocks you, all from a short but forbidding physiognomy with jaundiced eyes. To add to the inspector’s woes now, his crooked second-in-command Imtiaz is an old contact of Suchak who receives this kindred crony warmly.
Mobile phones were a gift to the whole world, especially to Bombay’s gangsters for their remote-controlled carnage. Sleeping with the enemy acquires a tele-communicational context in the story track wherein Sadhu gets joking, supposedly good-natured phone calls from a top gangster Zameer who is holed away in luxury in Dubai. Shots of supposed Dubai seem to have such a nice placid sea-side air, but it turns out these were filmed in Mauritius rather than in Dubai – a shame as many of these Bombay gangster flicks have a Dubai connection but the Gulf city itself has not been properly shown. Zameer, with his benign face and body clothed in satin ensembles, keeps cajoling Sadhu to go easy on his gang, and Sadhu laughingly tells Zameer that he will soon shoot him dead. Prasad Purandhare’s turn here as Zameer was mocked for its “ rabbit-like” innocuousness by the reviewer of the country’s most popular newspaper when the film released, but that snipe is more an indicator of that reviewer’s uselessness than that of Purandhare’s deceptively powerful act. He keeps benignly haggling with Sadhu, with a smile and chuckle here and there, but what he is, is a viper in his sandpit, planning his strikes in the most Satanic way, concealed by a faux-friendly exterior. Pic has no shortage of superb villains to measure up to the hero’s full-bore resolve. Witness a brief but spittingly brilliant act by Ravi Kale as a malevolent city corporator who barks at Sadhu to go to hell.
The film’s moral murk reaches its nadir in a sequence which Shimit Amin edits with racy razor-sharp brevity. Top bastard Suchak calls Sadhu and orders him without ceremony to sod off to nearby Pune, and pick up two men from the airport. Amin inter-cuts their brief conversation with the future proceedings in Pune, starting with cuts of Sadhu’s jeep racing along the highway. Wham bam thank you ma’am, the sequence is over in a jiffy and radically transforms our understanding of Sadhu. Going back to his encounters with the criminals, it takes a lot of courage to do extra-judicial killings – you kill a man even if he himself was a serial murderer, then you cop scalding flak from the whole town, then you have to sleep with what you did, then even face jail and the noose if it comes to that. Some of us may never accept Sadhu as a decent man to begin with, some may think him to be a true hero but that Pune sequence – I will not disclose more details – marks him more nebulously. He honestly reveals the whole thing to Jatin and then asks Jatin at the end what he would have done. We and Sadhu only realize much later that Jatin might be a more evolved tiger than him.
The inspector might have spent many a sunny day and sleepless night thinking whether those Chappan (56) extra-judicial encounter killings will come home to roost one day. At a totally unexpected juncture, the story’s biggest hit occurs. Sadhu’s on-the-spot reaction to that is also an unexpected masterpiece executed by Patekar. Is that part of his personality, or did he anticipate this, or both ? That seminal event sets off a quietly electrifying succession of chess moves which guns forward the second half of the story. The fire around Sadhu acquires such a blaze that he is eventually brought to sit at a prow and think whether he should leave these shores forever. His possible exodus – he may or may not leave - acquires a gravitas, purpose, difficulty and uncertainty far greater than that when Michael had to first leave New York for Sicily.
The climax is one of the most inspired and visionary denouements in cinema. The circularity in its scheming, vis-à-vis a sequence at the start of the story, is a textbook study in neat symmetry. Sadhu says “ Force ka aadmi hoon, tootunga nahi “ ( I am a man of the Force, I will not break ) , and a line of tears tracks down his left cheek for the first time since we have seen him.
The Hindu-Muslim angle in the story is an awkward one to discuss for Indians, but it deserves mention. Director Shimit Amin is Muslim while his writer and producer are Hindu. The two key villains in the movie are Muslim – Imtiaz and Zameer, and there is a lesser player too – a gangster named Feroz. But there is no shortage of corrupt Hindus here – a Hindu corporator is a disgrace, Zamran’s rival gangster is a Hindu and the biggest villain in the story is again a Hindu (you figure out who it is). Some viewers may still feel Muslims are negatively portrayed in sum here, and they are not entirely wrong – I could not find a single major Muslim character positively portrayed ( I am a Hindu ). I wonder how it would have been had Jatin’s role been a Muslim to start with.
What is incontrovertible however is one of the flick’s other great heroes - Salim-Suleiman’s ferociously good background score ( I suppose they are one of the few “good Muslims” in this pikchar). Varma’s cockles would have warmed that there is someone to replace the great Sandeep Chowtha who created an entire bracing universe with his scores for ‘Satya-Shool-Kaun-Company’. Using a plethora of modernist effects to tauten and heighten the proceedings, Salim-Suleiman’s BGM is the muscle of the movie - avoiding hysteria, maintaining a vital pulse and providing a masterclass in how to score background for thrillers. Vishal Sinha’s cinematography provides clear, confident frames for the narrative to spring-board from.
In an interview, Shimit Amin lamented how there is hardly any good writing in 21st century Hindi films. Amin did confess that editing gives him “more of a high“ than directing does. After “Ab Tak Chappan“, he directed two well-received movies - “ Chak De India “ and “ Rocket Singh : Salesman of the Year “. That’s three movies in sixteen years. When talented directors like him keep their filmic CV so brief, how on earth will good writers find an avenue for their work ? ‘Ab Tak Chappan’ remains an indicator of how good things can get when a quality director works hard.
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