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Conspiracy theories in Hindi cinema: The common man doesn't always win

Hindi cinema has often turned to the common man to highlight the politics-crime-corruption nexus. Deepak Dobriyal's Kuldip Patwal follows the same line as Amitabh Bachchan's Vijay and Rajkummar Rao's Newton.

Shriram Iyengar

The common man is one of the more powerful tropes in Hindi cinema. From Raj Kapoor's immortal tramp in the early 1950s to Amitabh Bachchan's 'Angry Young Man' persona to the recent rise of Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana, the common man has evolved according to the era. Yet, one thing remains constant — his fight for survival. 

The fight for survival is one of the key elements of Remy Kohli's upcoming directorial debut Kuldip Patwal: I Didn't Do It! The film stars Deepak Dobriyal playing the man on the street who is pushed into an extreme step by the changing situation. While the man fights to prove his innocence, the political class tries to make him a scapegoat to hang its sins on. 

The premise is neither new nor unique. Amitabh Bachchan's rise to superstardom hinged upon his portrayal of the rebellious common man rising up against an oppressive system. Whether as the hardworking labourer turned criminal in Deewaar (1975) or the amputee war veteran who helps his brother turn to the right path in Roti Kapada Aur Makaan (1974), the actor was always cast as the righteous representative of the man on the street.

With the exception of a Kissa Kursi Ka (1978) or a Nasbandi (1978), most of these films were commercial in nature. They resulted in either the vindication or the victory of the man on the street. 

By the 1980s, however, this trope was left mostly to independent cinema, led by Govind Nihalani and Shyam Benegal. Ardh Satya (1983) was a devastating exploration of the chafing struggle of an ordinary inspector under the political mafia.

Another cult classic that was released the same year was Kundan Shah's Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), which revolved around the growing builder-politician-mafia nexus in the city of Mumbai.

The key element in these films remained the ironic tone. Whether it was Ardh Satya's police officer gunning down a gangster and thus turning to crime, or Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro's ironic rendition of 'Hum Honge Kaamyaab', the Hindustani version of 'We Shall Overcome', at the end, the bitterness was palpable. 

These were ordinary people who took on what they saw as evil, without realizing how much the system depended on these malpractices.

Amit Masurkar's Oscar entry Newton (2017) revolved around a similar theme. An idealistic government officer seeks to conduct free and fair elections in a tribal region, only to realize that it is a facade to be kept up. He is powerless before the system. 

This has been the dominant theme through the years. Since the turn of the millennium, filmmakers have turned to darker implications in their portrayal of the nexus of crime, power and business. Often using humour as a shield, the exploration has revolved around the growing intersection of business and politics.

In Khosla Ka Ghosla! (2006), Anupam Kher plays KK Khosla, the middle-class man whose lifelong dream of a house is stolen by ruthless land shark Kishen Khurana (Boman Irani). Ironically, the idealistic Khosla has to turn to cheating himself to get his own land back. The film won the National award for Best Film in 2007.

But not all films had such fortunate endings. In Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), Abhay Deol played a public works engineer and failed novelist who chances upon a scandal involving the coverup of a paedophilia ring. The deeper he goes, the further the process of truth and justice is complicated. In the end, the helpless hero has no choice but to leave it to karma to take its course.

Inspired by the Roman Polanski film Chinatown (1974), the film has since attained cult status for its noirish style. But it still did not manage to make a splash at the box office, and sailed under the radar. 

Ram Gopal Varma took on the other big nexus — politics and the media — in Rann (2010). In almost prescient fashion, the film told of media houses conniving with political parties in the pursuit of wealth and power. The rise of Donald Trump and the use of 'fake news' across the world has proved Varma right. However, even the dark Varma turned optimistic, giving his idealistic journalist, played by Riteish Deshmukh, the power to bring down the whole nexus.

Subsequent years have seen Akshay Kumar, a very saleable hero, often taking up the role of vigilante. In Gabbar Is Back (2015), he played a vigilante bent upon exposing the growing corruption that has seeped into real estate, the bureaucracy, and administration.

In Udta Punjab (2016), there was a hint at the convivial relationship between the police and drug peddlers that has led to Punjab becoming a drug-addled state. It was this very fact that earned Abhishek Chaubey's film a rap from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). 

In Kuldip Patwal: I Didn't Do It!, Remy Kohli hints at the corrupt state of political administration that leads to a poor man taking up arms. From the remark on useless investigations in the trailer to the implied conspiracy, the film seems to follow the political dialectic of the past. However, as Christopher Nolan remarked in The Dark Knight (2008), Patwal has two choices — to die a hero or live to be a villain.