IN PRAKASH JHA'SRaajneeti, a commercial and critical hit from 2010, there’s a pivotal scene in which Nana Patekar—playing Brij Gopal, longtime mentor and strategician to the dynastic political party around whose fortunes the film revolves—arrives in a Dalit neighbourhood. Even as older members of the community greet him with surprise and pleasure, Brij Gopal moves quickly to deliver the announcement he has come to make: the respected but harmless Ram Charittar will be the party’s election candidate from Azad Nagar. As Ram Charittar raises his bewildered gaze to the camera in the midst of a shocked crowd, you cannot but remember the scene in Jha’s 1984 film Damul (Bonded Until Death), where the similarly hapless old Gokul is declared a candidate in the village Panchayat election by the wily landlord Bachcha Singh. As Bachcha Babu leads the assembled members of the Dalit basti in a spontaneous campaign chant of his own creation (“Bolo, ‘Gokul hamara neta hai!’”), it is Gokul’s baffled eyes on which the camera focuses.
This moment of resonance—across a gap of 26 years—would seem to indicate that Prakash Jha’s concerns as a filmmaker have remained constant since the beginning of his career. In some crucial respects, this is true. Jha is often identified—correctly—as someone whose filmmaking career is driven by his interest in Indian politics, specifically the politics of post-1970s Bihar and the changing role of caste. As I write this piece, he is preparing for the 12 August release of his latest film, Aarakshan (Reservation), a drama centred around the controversial issue of caste-based reservations in government jobs and educational institutions, starring Saif Ali Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Manoj Bajpayee and Deepika Padukone. But Jha’s journey from the village-level machinations of Damul (officially his second full-length feature) to the battle for chief ministership in Raajneeti has not been merely about a straightforward expansion of the canvas. Much has stayed the same: Jha’s penchant for dramatically-shot set pieces; his unerring ear for the cadences of Bihari speech, with the occasional English word inserted with absolute accuracy all the way from Damul’s “Panchayat ka faisla final hoga”; his keen grasp of the deeply masculine worlds of politics, business and crime—and the intersection of all three—in the Hindi heartland. But a great deal has changed.
Let’s look, for example, at the two scenes just mentioned.