I already wrote a No Spoilers review, you should read that if you are planning to see this movie. But if you aren’t planning to see it, because you spend your life worrying about social issues and want to take time off when you go to the movies, you can read this review instead and know what all the fuss is about.
Whole Plot in Two Paragraphs:
Ayushmann is the new Indian Administrative Service officer, coming to supervise a rural area in Utter Pradash. He is the son of a diplomat, grew up abroad, and now is starting at the top of the Indian bureaucratic services. He has a college girlfriend, Isha Talwar, who is a reformer in Delhi and who acts as his conscience, constantly encouraging him to do better. He is greeted with much fanfare, his new supervisees even figured out his favorite brand of liquor for the welcome party. He sees an old friend from college at the party, working as a pollution inspector in the village (a far lower level of state officer). Ayushmann gives his friend a ride home. Early the next morning, he is wakened with news that two young girls have been found hanging near the Dalit village. They have been missing for 2 days, along with a friend. Ayushmann’s police officers refused to file a missing case, saying that “those people” are always going missing and turning up again. Ayushmann starts to investigate, and learns his old friend is also missing since early that morning. He refuses to sign off on the easy answer, that it was an honor killing, and keeps looking for answers in fits and starts.
Meanwhile Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, the Dalit underground activist for the area, has called a general strike among the workers. The police station is slowly sinking under the sewage that is not being cleared out. And the police are short staffed and cannot carry out the search for the missing 3rd girl through the swamp and jungle. Ayushmann goes to a meeting with Mohammed, helped by Kumud Mishra, his lower caste officer. They finally get the men needed to search the swamp. Ayushmann talks to the female assistant coronor and gets confirmation that the girls were gang raped. He zeroes in on the local rich man’s son who slapped one of the girls for asking for a 3 rupee raise and gets DNA evidence against him. And then Ayushmann’s top cop, Manoj Pahwa, tracks him down and shoots him, revealing that he is culpable as well. At which point someone above him in the IAS, Nassar, is sent to supervise his investigation. Ayushmann keeps going, knowing he will be suspended any day now. Mohammend Zeeshan Ayyub is found by the national police, taken away and shot in an “encounter”. Ayushmann finds his old friend and gets him to tell the truth. The rich man’s son threw a party, they were all there. Ayushmann’s friend did not rape the girls but he knew they were there being raped and did not try to help them. Manoj Pahwa raped them. And so did Sushil Pandey, Ayushmann’s nice constable whose little sister works as his maid. Ayushmann immediately confronts Sushil, who is standing there witnessing the conversation. Sushil confesses, and then leaps into traffic and kills himself. Ayushmann has now found the place of the rapes (a school the rich man sponsors) and has DNA evidence against all of the rapists. He hands Nassar his full report and tells him he has sent it on to the Chief Minister as well. And then he goes and personally searches the swamp with his men, finally finding the third girl and saving her. The end text says that Manoj Pahwa was sentenced to 11 years in jail.
There’s one moment of the film that stands out to me as something different. Sushil confesses to the rape and says it was a sin, and begs Ayushmann not to let his sister find out. And then kills himself. Ayushmann returns home that night to find Isha waiting, she traveled from Delhi to surprise and support him in his fight. He says he is glad to see her, and then takes the maid by the hand and has her sit down and gently tells her, with Isha holding her and supporting her, that her brother is dead. And that he raped those girls and that is why he killed himself.
In any other movie, this scene would be about Isha and Ayushmann. We have had the whole movie of them texting and talking on the phone, a slow growing romance as Isha learns to respect him as a person. It’s a well done romance, it’s not about something as simple as “falling in love”, they already did that, they dated through college. It’s about whether she can respect him, whether he can be his own man and who that man is. And now Isha is here, she has learned to respect him so much that she has given up her own causes to come and fight for his. But instead, Ayushmann sees her, acknowledges her, and then immediately expects her to join with him in supporting the maid. Their relationship, their story, is second to her story.
And Sushil’s story is second also. In any other movie, the man who makes a dying request to another man would have that respected. Over and over again we have seen the network of men in a movie close ranks to protect the memory of a “good man” who did only one thing wrong. But Ayushmann rejects that. This is not a good man, and there is no loyalty owed to him. He deserves to have the truth told about him, no more and no less. His sister should not be “protected” from the reality of what men can be, even her brother. That is no protection at all, that is a weakness.
This is the journey Ayushmann goes through over the course of the film, rejecting the easy route of the half-truths and partial lies. He starts out accepting what he is told, we see the enormous wealth and luxury he enjoys that separates him from the people around him. A huge house, decorated with flowered curtains and old furniture, staffed by a loyal enthusiastic young maid, while the Dalits struggle for shelter from the rain. And he is alone, alone in the backseat of his car, alone in his house, alone in his office. His solitude protects him, he doesn’t have to deal with the messy realities of his job, he can just accept what he is told and sign off on it.
What this movie shows, accurately I think, is that there are always “good people” who want to do the right thing. But they do not have the power, even to reach out to those above them and report. The female assistant coroner wants to file an honest post-mortem report, fights to do that, but can’t because there are so many corrupt men between her and the person who has the ability to make a difference. Kumud Mishra is a lower caste man who has risen to a great height in the police. But he has no ultimate power either, he has to obey his immediate superiors, he isn’t free to do whatever he wants. It isn’t about a net of terrible evil, it is about a few carefully placed people who form a dam holding back justice.
And it also shows how easy it is to go with the flow, to accept the “common wisdom” and move on. Every society has those sins, the questions no one wants to look at closely. Last night I was talking with a friend who had just been to a neighborhood meeting following a shooting. The police were there and the Alderman and so on. And my friend happened to sit next to a woman whose daughter had been a friend of the victim. She was writing an article about him as this young boy she knew, his family, his life. Because she knew the media and the police and the other people in the neighborhood would rather simply think of him as a “gang member” and not think about him as a person. I hear that all the time in conversations around me, well-meaning middle-class white people shaking their heads over “gang violence” and the terrible things that “gang members” do and have done to them. We don’t talk about them as people, because that would mean there was a problem, that would mean we have to look at what is happening and try to fix it, that would mean there is an urgent terrible tragedy right in front of our door, instead of neatly tucking it all away in the drawer marked “gang violence”.
In this movie, Ayushmann doesn’t question the reality that the Dalits live separated from the rest of the community. He doesn’t think to ask questions when told the two girls were hung by their fathers as an honor killing. It’s a terrible thing, a sad thing, but nothing to be done about it. It’s what happens in villages, it’s what happens to the lower classes, put it in a box labeled “rural issues” and forget about it.
Isha is the one who challenges him, and she challenges him in an interesting way. She has no particular knowledge, she has no answers, she is just a phone call from Delhi, but she is asking questions and encouraging him to ask his own questions. Why accept what you are being told instead of thinking for yourself? That’s all Ayushmann has to do, try to think on his own instead of accepting, and then the answers are right in front of him. He asks if she wants him to be a hero, and she says no, she wants him to be someone who doesn’t wait for a hero.
That’s what this movie is about, being someone who doesn’t wait for the hero. It’s not just Ayushmann, over the course of the investigation Kumud Mishra gains back his confidence as well, and Ayushmann encourages his superior Nassar to be brave enough to say no to the politicians and publish the investigation. Don’t expect yourself to be perfect, to be fearless, to be magical. Just do what you can do as much as you can do it.
Of course, there is a hero in this movie. That’s the secretly most radical message. The hero of the film is Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. The Dalit who chose to stay with his people instead of taking his chances in the wider world with his intelligence and promise. The one labeled “anti-national” and a “terrorist” by the state and finally gunned down in the road. He is the one who sees clearly, he is the one who loves truly, he is the one who has something immediately magical about him. But he doesn’t get to be a hero, he isn’t noticed by anyone in power anywhere. This movie shows the painful reality of the “heroes” who are crushed down and forgotten, while the average men like Ayushmann are raised up thanks to where they were born. Ayushmann’s dedication and attempt to find some kind of justice is, ultimately, weaker than Mohammed’s actions. Which is a radical message, and an old message, one of Dr. Ambedkar’s many calls to action and questions for the future of his country:
Political tyranny is nothing compared to the social tyranny and a reformer who defies society is a more courageous man than a politician who defies Government.