Director: Sarthak Dasgupta
Cast: Amol Palekar, Rinku Rajguru, Saloni Batra, Barun Sobti, Indraneil Sengupta, Sushama Deshpande
Streaming on: ZEE5
Indian cinema has long been besotted with the rape-and-revenge drama. Given the questionable law enforcement process in this country, the mob justice trope is irresistible – and not implausible. But most filmmakers focus solely on the anatomy of rage. A wronged civilian defies the prejudiced system, and the visceral act of revenge itself becomes the resolution. We rarely see the implications of this act in the real world. The perspective is personal and isolated, usually of an unlikely protagonist taking the law into their own hands. But 200 Halla Ho is inspired by true events, and therefore in the rare position to zoom out and examine the sociopolitical consequences of this act – the arrests, the context of caste oppression, the legal loopholes, the media coverage, the moral optics and the general discourse in the nation. The tackily titled film begins at the end of what might have been an orthodox rape-revenge story – with the act itself – where a rapist on trial is found dead and dismembered in a Nagpur courtroom after 200 Dalit women lynch him in broad daylight.
The casting supports the meta commentary. Marathi actress Sushama Deshpande plays the unofficial leader of the women – a spiritual and literal sequel to her role in and as Ajji, Devashish Makhija's bleak and nihilistic film about a creaky old lady who avenges the rape of her granddaughter. Deshpande replicates the pressure-cooker persona with familiar ease. The rest of this film pivots on the aftermath of her 'crime'. The unique nature of the case forces a retired Dalit judge to confront his own conscience and work to secure the release of the prime accused. The narrative is defined not by the perpetrators or the victims but by the outsiders – the judge (Amol Palekar), a young slum resident (Rinku Rajguru) visiting from the big city, a newbie police officer (Indraneil Sengupta), an investigative journalist (Saloni Batra) and a small-time lawyer (Barun Sobti). The screen time differs, but each of them is the protagonist of their own against-all-odds film. All the elements point towards a smart procedural, with the flashbacks inherently weaved into the story as eye-witness accounts rather than dramatic posturing.
Yet, despite getting the structure right, 200 Halla Ho is diminished by its dated treatment and tone. The film-making is loud, rushed, and plagued by a '90s television aesthetic. For instance, one of the merits is the internal conflict of the retired judge – and his transition from a proud professional of zero bias to a caste-forward man who finally bats for his community. However, his awakening is not implied but painstakingly spelt out – through sentimental monologues to his wife in front of an Ambedkar portrait and photographs of his own impoverished past. Ditto for a lot of the film's caste subtext; most characters seem to be narrating their history to the audience rather than conversing among themselves.
Similarly, the staging of several situations lacks imagination. For some reason, the assembling of a fact-finding committee – a professor, an advocate, a judge and a reporter – is edited as though it were a heist thriller. I get the whole 'team montage' template, but it doesn't fit here. The romantic history between the Rinku Rajguru and Barun Sobti characters is pointless, not to mention the fact that they look awfully mismatched together (hard to imagine Rajguru as much older than her teen-aged Sairat role, whereas Sobti is in his mid-30s). Given that the film is set in the heart of Maharashtra, it's also a bit awkward to hear most of the locals strain to communicate in Hindi for the sake of the film. For a movie that thrives on cultural authenticity, so much of its emotional authenticity is lost in translation. Another example is the abrupt way all the women of the slum suddenly turn on their oppressor, triggered by a girl's courage against him. It doesn't look organic, even if it were close to the truth.
The film is supposed to end on a high, but this high is indistinguishable from chaos. It is absolute, naive and anything but eloquent
At times, I'm not sure if the film is lampooning the oft-fetishized genre or reiterating it. The vile rapist, a bald man named Ballu Chaudhary, behaves like a hammy Bollywood villain in order to provoke both the viewers and the women he preys on. The way he's shot and presented matters, because it influences the viewers' perception of the horrors faced by the women. When the lawyers visit the place for witness statements, almost on cue a little girl recites to the judge the lessons of secularism and equality she learned in school. The scene of the lynching itself is poorly choreographed, because the makers commit the cardinal error of discounting the world outside of the camera's viewfinder – the women seem to escape the frame instead of the environment. It doesn't help that various corridors of St. Xavier's College, Mumbai – an iconic shooting location instantly recognizable to most Hindi cinema viewers – are awkwardly dressed to stand in for the court sequences. The final courtroom scene, featuring an Amol Palekar monologue, sounds much better on paper. The veteran actor punctuates all the right words, but the craft – the background score, the frantic cutaways and the theatrical rhythm of the moment – lets him down.
The film is supposed to end on a high, but this high is indistinguishable from chaos. It is absolute, naive and anything but eloquent: an amplification of an upper-caste gaze that still appropriates the language of lower-caste grief. While director Sarthak Dasgupta's previous film (Music Teacher) felt like a tender passion project, this one sacrifices voice at the altar of commercial reach. Very little of it feels honest and heartfelt – it exists only because it must.