The sexual tension between a film critic and the exit door of a cinema hall is strong during Milap Zaveri movies. I watched the door with great longing in the morning show of Satyameva Jayate 2. Desperately adjusting my eyes to the darkness of the theatre, occasionally distracted by the heinous images flashing on screen, I hoped for the doors to magically open and swallow me whole. I imagined the sultry rush of corridor breeze welcoming me on the other side. But there was no response. I think the door recognized me from our pre-pandemic trysts during Marjaavaan (2019) and Satyameva Jayate (2018), when it started a hashtag to cancel me on social media after misinterpreting my longing (arthouse) glances as lecherous (commercial) stares. I thought the months of separation would soften the door’s stance towards me. But Satyameva Jayate 2 merely hardened its resolve, as though it were secretly enjoying the sight of me squirming in my seat and begging for release. Maybe it will finally give in during Satyameva Jayate 3. That’s the one thing I’ve learnt about flirting from old Bollywood movies: Stalking is the best foreplay.
Speaking of old Bollywood movies: Given how often the terms “mass” and “masala” are fondly invoked by mainstream directors, you’d think this was a Masterchef Mahim contest and not the Hindi film industry. In that context, Satyameva Jayate 2 is yet another tasteless plate of raw meat parading as the modern reincarnation of rare steak; the judges are dismissed and the audience will taste. Sold as an affectionate ode to pulpy 1970s Bollywood, the thing stars John Abraham in a triple role – as Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh, his super cop twin and the brothers’ heroic father in the 6783-minute-long flashback – that aims to cement Abraham as the third colour of an Indian flag originally patented by stars Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn. (My question: Who takes the green?). Needless to mention, the flag is by far the best actor of this movie – fluttering, waving and piercing through the air with enviable agility and a talent for silent dialogue.
Minister John wants to remove all corruption – which involves saving Muslims from bigots, Sikhs from everyone, women from men, orphans from traffickers, the country from itself and audiences from god-awful films. The last one may or may not be true, though it’s an entirely valid battle. Unable to bring about change in a rotten political system, he becomes a hooded vigilante by night – who yells, “Gandhiji ki jai ho lekin Bhagat Singh mera banda hai!” which translates to, “I respect Mahatma Gandhi but Bhagat Singh is my real bro!” – while killing all the bad apples. One of his missions features two evil ministers being made to eat the same contaminated meals cooked with expired products that poisoned a Madrasa full of Muslim children. As a punchline, the empty oxygen cylinders that caused the kids to die in an unstocked hospital are placed next to the dying men in a mosque. Somewhere in this idiotic scene, there’s a morbid metaphor about our toxic relationship with such movies. (Hint: meals made of expired products).
Much like the first film, the Super Cop brother gets on the unknown vigilante’s trail. But at least that one had the misplaced audacity to reveal the “twist” – that the two (Abraham and Manoj Bajpayee) are, in fact, brothers – midway through the film. No such luck here. This one features two Johns who can only be distinguished by the clothes they wear. So, somehow, the twist is not a twist but more of a war cry propagating the need of not one but two vengeful psychopaths – one for both eyes in “eye for an eye” – to wipe out a country’s problems. Look at me, trying to find mistakes in a movie when I should really be looking for the movie in a mistake.
There’s another moment that’s as depressing as it is funny. Cop John is introduced in a scene where: 1) He rescues a girl from eve-teasers, 2) He rescues a girl from eve-teasers on Independence Day, 3) He rescues a girl from eve-teasers in an Independence Day parade when the national anthem interrupts his demolition of the baddies. Naturally, he stops what he’s doing and stands still in respect of the anthem, while the baddies continue to smash weapons on him only to see them bounce off his muscles. Then I noticed the 7 viewers in the theatre around me standing up for the anthem at once – making for an experience so meta-creepy that it could make Black Mirror blush. Let me spell it out anyway: everyone on and off screen stopped to prove their patriotism in the midst of an assault on them and their senses. If that isn’t a nutshell of India in 2021, I don’t know what is.
Don’t let movies like this fool you, though. They are not made as a tribute to the masses; they’re made to mock those who expect better. While every screechy frame may look to be designed as a celebration of Bollywood’s oldest and corniest tropes, it’s largely composed to provoke the gatekeepers of new-age cinephilia. That’s what a majority of commercial cinema is today – a hostile reaction to the naysayers rather than a genuine expression of voice. It’s not driven by love so much as bitterness, or nostalgia so much as fear (of irrelevance). Unlike Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om, these are movies that don’t know how to spoof the old without taunting the new. They don’t know how to make a statement without at once dismissing the counterstatement. I apologize for getting sensible and somber for a film that probably doesn’t deserve my wounds. But to control these emotions, I’ve started to cycle to the theatre these days. It’s nice. The reasoning is: If not my mind, at least my body should be stimulated. Wait, that didn’t sound right. No wonder the door thinks I’m a pervert.