The capitalised sincerity of Shorgul only conceals its many problems. Directors P Singh and Jitendra Tiwari have attempted to expose the causes of the 2013 riots in the Uttar Pradesh area of Muzzafarnagar (renamed Malihabad in the movie). But the filmmakers’ love for contrivance, simplification and populist rhetoric combine to make Shorgul yet another misfired investigation of the true nature of communal conflagrations in India.
On the plus side, the 132-minute movie has strong performances from most of its cast, especially Ashutosh Rana, whose subtle and winning turn is a welcome break from his screechy characterisations in the past, and Hiten Tejwani.
The town famous for its mango orchards is presented in Shorgul as a killing field. Ranjit (Jimmy Shergill) is the dapper sunglasses-sporting demagogue from a political outfit that resembles the Bharatiya Janata Party. Ranjit’s love for whiskey and massages from underclad women do not prevent him from using the traditional route to election glory.
Ranjit badly wants to stir up religious violence and ruin the good name of community patriarch Chaudhary (Ashutosh Rana), a Gandhian figure whose personal integrity makes him immensely popular among Hindus and Muslims alike. Chaudhary manages to upstage Ranjit each time he tries to foment trouble, but a storm is brewing in his own home.
The fire inside
His son Raghu (Aniruddh Dave) is in love with their Muslim neighbour Zainab (Suha Gezen). A Salma Agha-lookalike, Zainab appears far too old to play the ingénue, and the filmmakers’ attempts to present the Turkish model as the next big thing in Hindi cinema result in far more screen time than she can possibly handle.
As always, it’s a woman who is the cause of the world’s woes. Zainab is betrothed to Salim (Hiten Tejwani), a liberal Muslim whose cousin Mustaqeem (Eijaz Khan) has moved back home from Gujarat. The piece of flesh that dangles precariously from Mustaqeem’s neck suggests that he was the victim of communal violence in the 2002 riots. Mustaqeem is brimming with anger, and he gets a chance to play mischief maker when he realises Raghu’s one-sided love for Zainab. One thing leads to the next, the bodies start piling up, and Chaudhary steps in to protect Zainab’s honour as the town burns.
By reducing the causes for the trouble to a misunderstood romance and attributing Ranjit’s machinations to personal ambition rather than a dangerous attempt at social re-engineering, Singh and Tiwari make Shorgul yet another generic riots movie rather than a specific exploration of the reasons for Muzzafarnagar.
Ranjit has a few counterparts in a film eager to place the blame in both camps. The rabble-rousing minister Alim Khan (Narendra Jha) gives an inflammatory speech to the town’s Muslims, but the screen equivalent of the divisive statements of BJP leaders that stirred passions between Jats and Muslims in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 is missing. Ranjit does key up his cohorts by challenging their masculinity and nationalism, but in private.
A sub-plot featuring Ranjit’s conniving and ambitious aide suggests that in the end, all is fair in love and politics. Like many other populist films about communal riots, Shorgul suggests an idyllic peace between Hindus and Muslims that will endure so long as meddling politicians stay out of the picture. The events of the last decade have, however, conclusively proven otherwise. Shorgul has no scope to explore the unending rise of communal feelings among ordinary people, and the confused plotting and never-ending turn of events further muddle an already mixed message.
The movie opens by expressing its gratitude to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Singh Yadav, whose poor leadership during the Muzaffarnagar riots seems to have been forgotten by the filmmakers. The speech by the screen CM (Sanjay Suri), named Mithilesh Singh Yadav for good measure, about maintaining law and order at all costs, is a barely disguised plug for an entertainment tax concession. Shorgul might upset Hindu and Muslim leaders in Uttar Pradesh, but its chief minister will be most pleased at his depiction as the embodiment of good governance.