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November 2, 1999


Send this story to a friend Raveena Tandon, Manoj Bajpai and Baby Avi in Shool

A fuzzy vitality

Anil Nair

Motihari is a one-train town in the badlands of Bihar. As a sanctuary of evil it resembles a piece of pre-riots Bombay, without the smells and the early closing. As though in recognition that the underworld everywhere is essentially the same, debutant director E Nivas -- who began his career as spot boy under Ramgopal Varma and graduated to become his chief understudy -- has shot Shool in dank, washed-out colours, so that the red is drained to maroon and the blue to navy.

Any influence, unconscious or otherwise, that Satya may have had on Shool and Varma on Nivas, however, ends there. Although cast in the typical Bollywood potboiler formula, its portrayal of the political milieu in the Hindi heartland is as authentic as it is rivetting. Shool offers enough on this score to be a tempting alternative to curling up with the latest of William Darlymple's prize-winning despatches, if not a sojourn itself to Bihar's back of beyond.

Sayaji Shinde in Shool Bacchu Yadav (Sayaji Shinde) is the MLA of Motihari for 15 years running but, more pertinently, is the lord of all he surveys in the district. The film itself begins with a midnight call informing Yadav that the ''high command'' has decided to give the ticket this time to his local political rival, a Thakur. The caller, before hanging up after confidentially confiding this information, darkly hints that the announcement will be made public only in the morning and that Yadav could do a lot by then. And does he! It's a simple expedient: he himself leads his goons to Thakur's home, wakes him up and makes some small talk before stabbing him through the heart.

The next shot cuts to a sylvan sunrise and a train steaming into a station. A young man, lugging two ancient trunks, and with wife and kid in tow, steps out into the dappled light and... well, a few sequences later, to a cutting knowledge of what life as an idealist police inspector means in Bihar.

Manoj Bajpai in Shool Manoj Bajpai, as inspector Samar Pratap Singh, has risen to the expectation, pulling off a robust and salty performance. At times he tends to go overboard, as with the scene where he pleads with the mute crowd for a glass of water for his dying child, and the result is smirky and jejune. Otherwise, whether as a character out of his kilter or as a villain in a script he can't remember writing, Bajpai's acting is controlled and commendable, and he has an advantage here for so much of his personality resides in his eyes.

The scene-stealing performance, however, has come from Sayaji Shinde. Incidentally, Bacchu Yadav is the darker confiere of Bhiku Mhatre in Satya, played ironically enough by Bajpai. Yadav is a vain priss who reigns through terror and wouldn't be remotely liked by his dependants even if he were to declare a general amnesty and donate a mangalsutra to every family with an unmarried daughter. As though that weren't enough, he is truly reptilian in temperament: his eyes narrow in mock scrutiny of an unfortunate henchman, even as his smile has a pixie twist to it, making his next step unfathomable. It's a memorable performance of a feudal politician, dumb and dictatorial, his virility and maschismo shading into bullying, his sheer physicality flatulent and dangerous.

Raveena Tandon in Shool But Inspector Singh, the cop on the tear, is scarcely deterred by all this. Each transgression by Yadav and each new incident revealing the obsequiousness of his superiors, rather than making our hero lose scales from his eyes, makes him more amped up. His wife's -- played by Raveena Tandon who has done a subdued and convincing no-frills job --- remonstrations, as that of a trusted colleague, the only one, fall on deaf ears.

From now on, formula takes over. The climax is not predictable only in the excess of melodrama it contains. One has heard of criminals gunning down rivals in courtrooms, but here you have a policeman gunning down a politician in the state assembly, and not before he has delivered a long harangue on the sacredness of duty, patriotism and such other tosh. And you have music accompanying the whole scene which sounds like something the music director-trio --- Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy --- dreamed up after a Mexican meal. Understandably, the whole thing turns the movie into mush.

Raveena Tandon and Manoj Bajpai Trying for an infernal starkness, Nivas has achieved an infernal tackiness. In the earlier parts of the movie the camera whirls and swoons among bursts of fauvist light and that combined with the authenticity of the various characters' nuances. Their dialogue had managed to convey something feral and ominous. In the end one can only say that Shool is for the most part a slovenly film and its politics fuzzy, but there is a vitality to the fuzziness. Not something every Hindi movie can claim.

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