Raj Kumar Santoshi is best known for his message based films. I remember him for his Damini, for his Ghayal; hard-hitting cinema and generally socially relevant. So Halla Bol doesn’t really come as a surprise, as it is on the hot-button topic of modern day India – the apathy to everyday crime. Specifically Halla Bol appears to be based on the Jessica Lall's murder, but where in real life there was no “hero” who spoke up (unless you consider the media one), here Ajay Devgan don’s the savior’s mantle.
Devgan as Ashfaq, a Bollywood star, is an unlikely hero. Once a conscientious young man, his ambition and dreams have made him thick-skinned and selfish. Ashfaq, also known as Sameer Khan, does what sells, be it making up childhood, poverty-ridden sob stories to gain sympathy from the public, or shutting his eyes to unsavory facts of life. One such fact stares him in the face when he witnesses a murder, at a crowded, celebrity filled party. Like the others at the party, he also feigns ignorance when questioned by the police about the killers (two young men who kill in cold blood and in full view of people).
Uncomfortably for our hero, his dormant conscience awakens, and he goes ahead and confesses to having witnessed the murder, and even identifies the killers. They are spoilt sons of influential fathers; one a minister’s son, and the other the son of a liquor baron.
As expected Ashfaq is threatened, cajoled and bribed to take back his statement but he stands his ground. The criminals then resort to doing good on their threats, first setting fire to Ashfaq’s young son’s room, and then trying to run him (Ashfaq) over. However just when he is going under, comes help from a most unexpected quarter.
The story of Halla Bol is a well-known one. It has played out on our television screens numerous times; the unspeakable crime, the temerity of the killers, and the utter ineffectiveness of the justice system. It is an engrossing and gripping story with much emotional appeal. Santoshi does make use of this - but sparingly, thus reducing the emotional thrust of the film.
Santoshi’s films have a very earthy feel to them. They aren’t sophisticated, elegant dramas, but in-your-face, brashy, movies, where shots of heroes soiling Persian carpets in corrupt minister’s homes, do not look amiss. Nor do the dated sword-fights. Santoshi uses every trick in the book to make his point, and this can in places lead to unrealistically contrived scenarios, and extremely 'filmi dialogues' – lots of metaphors, loaded punch-lines and emphatic walk-offs. The background score and the songs were not very impressive; they didn’t add to this kind of film as they could have.
I consider Devgan one of the more versatile actors in the industry, but he seemed ill-at-ease in the light-hearted or romantic scenes. Even in the intense scenes, he was not at par – he did a much better job in films like Company and Gangajal. Vidya Balan as his wife does good, and is very effective in her limited screen-time. Darshan Jariwalla essaying a corrupt minister’s role, appears vile and odious, and plays the part perfectly. The supporting actors (Ashfaq’s parent’s roles) do an adequate job.
The highlight of the film was watching Pankaj Kapoor as Siddhu, an ex-dacoit turned automobile repairman cum social crusader, with a flair for the dramatic arts. It is with Sidhu that Ashfaq enters the realm of acting, surviving on street theatre, until he decides to go to Bombay to pursue bigger dreams. Kapoor plays Sidhu with panache, even making the most filmi line (and there are many) seem natural.
In recent years, there have been a spate of films which deal with the role of the citizenry in maintaining law and order in the state. There was Rang De Basanti, Gangajal, and Shool, all buring up with the fire of retribution. Halla Bol falls into the dark, brooding cinema category, and differs from RDB and Shool, in that it actually ends on a high note.
Halla Bol is a worthwhile film, although it does fail to come together as a finished product; a puzzle with some of its pieces missing. Thus, one does not, after wending one’s way home, get the satisfaction of seeing an “excellent” film. It is an honest effort however. And although not quite as effective as masterpieces like Shool, it does what it sets out to do – it raises questions and effectively brings issues to the fore-front, and that garners it that above average rating.