Article Hindi

Halla Bol is still a film for our times – 10th anniversary special

The issues raised in Rajkumar Santoshi's film remain as alive today as they were at the time of its release on 11 January 2008.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Aajkal ke zamaane mein zyaada bolne ka nahin [Better not to say much in today's age],” advises one of the characters in Rajkumar Santoshi’s 2008 film, Halla Bol. The advice remains as relevant today as it was 10 years ago. Not much has changed in our society. If anything, voices critical of the powers that be are quelled with greater fervour today.

Known for his hard-hitting films Ghayal (1990), Damini (1993), and Lajja (2001), which offered staunch criticism of the state and its corrupt functionaries, Rajkumar Santoshi’s Halla Bol tackled the power-crime nexus as it aspired to become a rallying cry against the ills of society.

In an interview done around the time of the film's release, Santoshi had said the film was inspired by slain theatre activist Safdar Hashmi and was about raising our voice against injustice. The title of the film was, in fact, the title of the play about workers’ rights that was being performed by Hashmi's Jana Natya Manch on 1 January 1989 when the performance was disrupted by political goons who beat up members of the troupe and mortally injured Hashmi, who died the next day. Marking their resistance, the play was performed at the same spot two days after Hashmi’s death.

In the film, Ashfaq or Sameer Khan (Ajay Devgn), as he later becomes, draws his acting lineage from street theatre that engages with socio-political issues. His desire to become a film actor changes him, as he elbows his way to the top, effectively forgetting all that he once stood for.

But his apathy is challenged when he witnesses the murder of a girl at a party and he is jolted out of his indifference.

Sameer Khan is far from being the perfect hero. He opts for the convenience of doing nothing instead of fighting the good fight, cheats on his wife, turns his back on his friends and on those who enabled him to make something of himself, but eventually he comes around and in the face of arm-twisting, sabotage and gross harassment, decides to return to his roots and engage with issues through street theatre.

Persecuted every step of the way, the actor defends his right to perform, making "Halla Bol” his war cry.

Ajay Devgn in a scene from the film Halla Bol

The film received harsh reviews at the time of its release and undoubtedly lacks finesse. The treatment is simplistic and dated (even for 10 years ago), the narrative rambles on, and certain acts of machismo/bravado are cringeworthy.

Nonetheless, the film has its heart in the right place as, taking its cue from issues of the day like the Jessica Lal murder case, Aamir Khan’s involvement with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, etc, it tackles the apathy of the rich and the connected in the name of self-interest.

The now ubiquitous saffron brigade is also seen zealously protecting the honour of a Hindu woman in the film, reminding us that the current vigilantism in the country is simply a more heightened and protected reaction as opposed to its antecedents.

In its engagement with social issues, Halla Bol is a courageous film. Its staunch criticism of the film industry illuminates the path littered with sexual favours and deceit followed by young strugglers to get ahead. The back-biting, hypocrisy, and jealousy endemic in the industry is explored as the film exposes the insecurities of the famous and the wealthy as they hide behind their carefully manicured images. 

While Devgn played the troubled protagonist convincingly, Vidya Balan, who was yet to achieve her current stardom, was wasted in a tiny role. The stellar supporting cast, which included Pankaj Kapur, Sanjai Mishra, Aanjjan Srivastav and Sulabha Arya, added credibility to Sameer Khan’s journey as he set out to redeem himself.

But the most powerful scenes undoubtedly belonged to Pankaj Kapur who played Sidhu, a shining example of the transformative power of art and whose gritty resolve and unwavering commitment are riveting. Every scene of Kapur's was compelling as he became the moral centre of the film. 

The stifling of creative expression, the brute force unleashed by politicians to protect their own, the deep-rooted corruption of state functionaries, the issues explored in the film remain, sadly, just as pertinent today. Perhaps it’s time for the citizenry to adopt the war cry for corrective action — Halla Bol!