‘This is just another mafia/cop film’ I hear you say after seeing the title “Sehar”. The story is not novel but it touches on subjects that many other similarly themed films fail to explore. For starters, Kabeer Kaushik’s maiden script-direction venture is based on a true story from the 1990’s.
At the centre of the film is the city Lucknow. It has a new police officer who has to cope with yet another transference in his career. Ajay Kumar (Arshad Warsi) is concerned about the gangster and mafia nexus embedded within the city. He is told to ignore it by his superior, as it is something that you can’t change. The indifferent attitude doesn’t deter Ajay from delving deeper into the corrupt circumstances. Gajraj Singh (Sushant Singh) has something in common with Ajay – he is also new on the scene. Except that he is a mobster keen on getting the grip of the city under his control. Name it and it bears his dirty fingerprints be it the railway contracts, building finances and the exploitation of university students. Equipped with a special task force and an IT professor (Pankaj Kapur), Ajay embarks on a mission to end the gangsters’ nexus.
The period that the plot is set in (the 1990’s) allows us to view the story with a sense of perspective, the kind of perspective you achieve when watching an excellent documentary. The unique focus of the story is the way the officers fight the hurdle that comes in the form of increasing cell phone use. The criminals increasingly communicate with each other through cell phones and this flummoxes the police force, as they do not know how to listen into these conversations. Keen on wanting to anticipate Gajraj’s next move, Ajay employs the help of a physics lecturer. These policemen are not super-beings ready to process brand new information in an instant (as in Anubhav Sinha’s flashy “Dus”) and that is conveyed in an amusing moment when during a meeting, one policeman mutters that he cannot understand all this technical talk.
But understand they must and eventually they do but Ajay also bumps into another problem – this time of the legal kind. They have to expand their operation into other areas of the state of Uttar Pradesh to capture Gajraj and law requires them to inform the local police in advance. Ajay and his team are reluctant to do this as the past has demonstrated that informing another police force of a sting operation tends to scupper the whole plan due to a few corrupt policemen. After a lot of difficulty, the Lucknow police force make a breakthrough and are given permission to operate without necessarily informing other men in uniform.
It is fascinating to watch a realistic depiction of a police force struggling against odds to reduce the hold that the underworld has upon the cities. It is a refreshing change to see a film that celebrates something that the police has accomplished. It is easy to criticise or to attack but it is uplifting to see a film that doesn’t judge or condemn the cops. In one scene, a few policemen are reprimanded by their superior after beating a man for sending threatening telephone calls to Ajay’s mother (Suhasini Mulay). Policemen are not portrayed as being above the law and it is left up to you, the viewer, to decide whether they were correct or wrong in their course of action. In this respect, it is like watching a compelling gritty documentary without the flashiness or the showy glamour of much of Ram Gopal Verma’s cinema.
Indeed, criticism could be levelled at “Sehar” for not being dramatic enough or for being too dull but such comments would be irrelevant as the film is not exactly aiming to be a pulsating thriller. As a scriptwriter and director, Kabeer Kaushik chooses to get through a lot of happenings in the story and it is to his credit that he pulls it off. Many characters come and go (usually going via death by bullet) and many incidents are conveyed – kidnapping, fraud, suicide – and are given depth by the human emotions of doubt, pain and… well, human demons in general. Such constant subplots within the big picture convey Lucknow as a pulsating city that is threatening to be destroyed by its multiple secrets. It is all the more remarkable then that Kaushik still manages to find a specific space within the narrative to lend an old world charm to the love angle between Ajay and university lecturer Anamika (Mahima Chaudhary, looking stunning, in a small role).
However, there is a drawback with a narrative similar to a dramatised documentary and that is the film’s refusal to allow us to get into the mind of Gajraj Singh. He is the main villain of the piece but we are always kept at a distance. Maybe the intention was to shroud his character in mystery to heighten the suspense but it does backfire at a point. While we are shown the protagonist’s background, very little is revealed of his antagonist. Sushant Singh does the best he can in a somewhat sketchy role. Arshad Warsi steps away from his image of being the joker and steps into the shoes of a serious man who has little time for jokes. His is a convincing and stellar performance in a central character that holds the entire film together. Talented artistes, Pankaj Kapur, Suhasini Mulay and Naved Aslam, stand out in short but crucial roles.
While Kabeer Kaushik’s handling of what must have been a daunting project should be commended, he is helped by other technical factors. Amitabh Shukla’s precise editing makes sure that scenes flow smoothly and don’t seem scattered and disconnected. Biswadeep Chatterjee’s distinctive sound design enhances the flavour of Daniel B. George’s score that is reminiscent of a spaghetti western. All these mentions prove that a collective team effort can always make a small film stand out irrespective of its budget or star cast. A Shyam Benegal protégé, Kaushik started out in a career as an ad-maker. When ad-makers debut into filmmaking, they tend to make a movie high on style and little in substance. Thankfully, that is not the case with Kaushik and I hope his next big budget project will live up to, if not exceed, the standards set by his debut.