Director: Ali Abbas Zafar
Writers: Sukhmani Sadana, Ali Abbas Zafar
Cast: Diljit Dosanjh, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Kumud Mishra, Hiten Tejwani, Amyra Dastur, Paresh Pahuja
It’s a strange time for event-driven Hindi cinema. Almost every conflict post-2014 – political, communal, cultural, social – is off limits. Forget social media outrage; most mainstream productions won’t get past the vetting stage. As a result, several storytellers have been forced to find new ways to speak to today’s turbulent times. Mining the past to address the present is all the rage right now. Apart from the 1992 Bombay riots (most recently the backdrop for Hansal Mehta’s Modern Love short, Baai) and the 1947 Partition, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots seems to be a popular choice. While titles like Grahan and Laal Singh Chaddha (2022) are rooted in the history of the tragedy, Jogi is explicitly based on the violent aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
The setting is North Delhi, the organised pogroms have begun, and bloodthirsty mobs are running riot in minority-populated districts. The images are specific and familiar, old and new at once; the crisis lies in the eyes of the beholder. (This is a film made by a Muslim director, with an outspoken Muslim actor playing the good-Hindu character). If you can look past the triteness of the staging, it says a lot. A brave Sikh man, Jogi (Diljit Dosanjh), joins forces with two old friends – a Haryanvi policeman named Rawinder (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) and a Muslim truckowner, Kaleem (Paresh Pahuja) – to secretly transport all the surviving residents of his Trilokpuri lane to Mohali. The villain is a local councillor named Tejpal Arora (Kumud Mishra) – a Hindu Arora, not a Sikh one – who has mobilised citizens, cops and convicts alike against the Sikhs to curry favour with his bosses. He wants to exterminate as many as possible before the Indian Army reaches the city. But Rawinder defies Arora to help Jogi with his mission over two tense nights.
For the most part, Jogi is a decent evacuation thriller. It does the little things well. For instance, the story cuts right to the chase. The mandatory ‘happy’ scene before all hell breaks loose is limited to a family breakfast – no mucking around, no long-drawn banter, no inflated setups. The context is embedded in the chaos that follows. Rawinder is handed a voting list with Sikh names marked out, but he straightaway reaches Jogi and his community members hiding in the Gurudwara. It is simply implied that they’re childhood friends. There are no needless flashbacks. Very little dialogue is exchanged. They don’t speak like exposition devices; there is an unsaid understanding between them. Ditto for the third friend, Kaleem, who starts customising the trucks without any sentimentality. The swiftness of it all suggests that the story doesn’t begin when the viewer starts watching; it has already been in motion long before we’ve joined.
The treatment isn’t exactly low-key, but it milks the right moments. Like when Jogi emotionally does away with his turban and chops off his hair before the ‘heist’ – the moment is intercut with his childhood Dastaar Bandi (turban-tying) ceremony with sensitivity and heft. Or when the two men burn down the (empty) houses in the locality so that Ravinder can pretend to follow Tejpal’s plan. Most of the suspense is composed well. A scene featuring the Sikh-smuggling truck stopping at a Hindu-infested supply farm for fuel ratchets up the pressure like Argo (2012). Another one at an octroi point plays out loudly but practically, revealing Jogi to be not some smooth operator but an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Another one at the Punjab border indulges in just the correct amount of emotional manipulation.
The primary cast – particularly Dosanjh in the titular role – is solid. There’s a moment early on where Jogi must vow to help not just his own family but the entire community in his area. Most movies might have dialled it up to establish Jogi’s courage and roots. But Dosanjh is so sincere that the film-making can afford to resist external tricks like heroic background music or lyrical dialogue. Ayyub overcooks some of Ravinder’s stoic reactions, but I can’t think of a smarter actor for the role. Mishra veers towards a Prakash-Jha-esque baddie, especially towards the end, yet he summons enough menace to keep the narrative moving. Some of the visual symbolism is potent – like a frame featuring a suspicious Hindu policeman at a doorstep, unaware that a Sikh and Muslim man are hiding on either side of the door.
All of which suggests that Jogi is an engaging film, a more grounded (2016) of sorts. But it’s not that simple. The parts ultimately don’t add up. Jogi stops short of being a good movie because of its final act. That’s when it starts behaving like an old-school Bollywood melodrama. The decision to centre the narrative on the theme of friendship and hope is fine, but this also feels like a buffer to blunt any outrage it may cause. After the (2021) controversy, director Ali Abbas Zafar seems to have embraced caution in terms of his broader vision. The writing wants us to believe that its intent is to make the characters wonder how communal violence can transform friends into foes overnight. But the route it takes – with a Delhi University flashback and a thread of personal vendetta – is self-defeating. The answer remains vague.
The entry of a bad-cop character (Hiten Tejwani) derails this purpose because it forces the story to shed its leanness and succumb to the kind of tropes that might have worked if this were a trial-by-fire buddy movie, like (2013). The conflict is similar, but here it looks like a copout. It comes from nowhere. When Jogi changes tracks and becomes message-oriented, you feel like it’s trying to explain itself. In doing so, it also distorts the anatomy of a riot. This absolves the film of its political specificity – promptly collapsing into the sort of generic hero-propping plot that Zafar routinely reserves for his Salman Khan movies.
I’m all for focusing on the flickering of light in the midst of darkness. But a story like this demands tonal control over the medium. Exploring a historical tragedy through the narrow lens of a friendship drama is not the problem; constricting that tragedy to the lens is. It’s a pity, because until that final act, Jogi seemed like an unusually perceptive film located in a democracy that keeps repeating the same mistakes. It uses the past as an effective ruse. But then it loses its nerve, and uses fiction as a second layer of disguise. By the end, the real Jogi is lost, sacrificing its voice at the altar of offend-nobody entertainment. The craft is incidental; the fear is not.
Jogi is now streaming on Netflix.