Interview Hindi

15 years of Gangaajal: Director Prakash Jha reveals what inspired him to make the crime drama

More than the Bhagalpur blindings of 1979-80, the filmmaker was astounded by the way ordinary people came out in support of the accused cops.

Mayur Lookhar

A policeman has always held a special significance in Hindi cinema, The man in khaki is either your righteous officer who will even lay down his life in the line of duty or the one corrupting the system.

Often, action dramas in Hindi cinema centre on the good-cop-bad-cop saga. In 2003, Prakash Jha presented the gripping crime drama Gangaajal. The film stood out from the conventional cop dramas we were accustomed to. Perhaps for the first time, you didn’t look at policemen as good or bad; you looked more at the circumstances that made a cop behave the way he did.

Set in Jha's native Bihar, Gangaajal used the Bhagalpur blindings of 1979-80 as a key subplot in his story. In fact, if he had not used it, there would be no Gangaajal. 'Bhagalpur blindings' refers to a series of incidents that took place in 1979 and 1980 in police lockups in Bhagalpur where some men in uniform blinded 31 undertrials (convicts, according to some) by pouring acid into their eyes.

As Ganjaajal completes 15 years (the film released on 29 August 2003), Jha spoke briefly with in a telephonic chat. Excerpts.

Prakash Jha 

Traditional  Hindus have believed that Gangaajal washes away one’s sins, but the Gangaajal in your film wasn’t so forgiving.

That was a dark synonym used by the people who used acid [from car batteries] to cleanse society of [criminal] elements who had disturbed the peace. They felt the system was not helping them. The police used to arrest these criminals and they would get away on bail. This was like mocking the system.

Apparently, the first such incident didn’t happen in a police station but in a village close to Bhagalpur. Villagers there accidentally blinded some robbers whom they had caught. That scared the people so much that robberies stopped in that village. The police took the cue from there and it slowly caught on.

If I’m correct, your film was set in contemporary times. Why was it important then to have the ‘Bhagalpur blindings’-like violence as a subplot?

It took me eight years to finish writing the script. The blindings were not the reason for me to make the film. The reason to make the film was how society cooperated, collaborated with the police. When these officers were charged by the law, people came out on the streets to support them. That is when I started writing this script. I wondered what is this relationship between the police and society.

Fifteen years have gone by so quickly. There must be many fond memories of shooting this film. Can you recall one or two?

The film will remain fresh even after 150 years because it deals with the reality of society’s relationship with the police. I don’t think this will change.

Things are pretty organized in my films. I enjoyed making that film. One scene that comes to mind is of Mangani Ram (Daya Shankar Pandey) when he stops a bus for checking, wanting to collect money [from the driver, conductor], without realizing that SP Amit Kumar (Ajay Devgn) is on that bus. Mangani Ram is misusing his position. He gets suspended and thereafter runs a tea stall and how he eventually redeems himself. Each character had that arc in the film. A police constable has no respect in this country.

Gangaajal gave a new turn to Ajay Devgn's career.

Well, Ajay Devgn was already a star. He had done Zakhm (1998) before. That film gave me confidence in him. His intensity struck me. New turn, I can’t comment on that. Devgn today has done a Singham (2011) too. He never did another Gangaajal though.

In terms of your career, how do you look at the film today?

My experiments [with commercial cinema] started with Mrityudand (1997).  I made arthouse films like Damul (1985) and Parinati (1989). I make realistic cinema, but I had to adapt it to translate such subjects into commercial cinema. So, I had to learn a whole new language [of commercial cinema].

After Mrityudand, this journey has continued with films like Apaharan (2005), Raajneeti (2010), Aarakshan (2011), Chakravyuh (2012) and Satyagraha (2013). I have held on to that grammar. Purists reckon I have sold out to commercial cinema. The commercial audience would say I only make 'art' films.

The way I see it, I continue to hold a conversation with the public through my films. A film that doesn’t connect with the audience, that cinema is non-existent. My cinema must continuously have a dialogue with the people. 

The corrupt police-politician nexus is nothing new in life or in cinema, but in the 1990s and early 2000s there were just three films featuring an A-list actor, Sarfarosh (1999), Shool (1999) and Gangaajal, that didn’t present the police in a cliched manner. Your thoughts?

You are right. I don’t think I can add anything to it. The film showed the reality. Police is corrupt, but its corruption is self-explanatory. I have always made such films. I had made Mrityudand earlier. I take care that my stories don’t get fantastical. It is circumstances that make people behave the way they do.

While Ajay Devgn was the protagonist, the character of Bachcha Yadav made quite an impact. What did you make of Mukesh Tiwari?

Like I said, each character had a different arc. Tiwari's character had a tremendous arc, as he turned positive from negative. He is a simple man who did a fine job.

Is it true that you had first offered this film to Akshay Kumar but he refused for he felt it had too much violence?

No truth to it. We had discussed Gangaajal with Devgn while making Dil Kya Kare (1999) [produced by Devgn's father Veeru Devgan].