“Don’t underestimate the power of a common man.” The line from Chennai Express (2013) that was played for laughs guides the actions of Nirmal in Nishikant Kamat’s Madaari. Nirmal (Irrfan) had lost his seven-year-old son in a bridge collapse in Mumbai, and he tells the grieving father of another victim of the accident about what he will do with the compensation money: he will convert the cheque into a weapon to fix the people responsible for the death of his only child.
Nirmal goes about his revenge in a manner that will be familiar to fans of Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday (2008). He engineers a crisis and waits for the system to react. Nirmal kidnaps Rohan (Vishesh Bansal), the son of the country’s home minister (Tushar Dalvi). Jimmy Shergill’s Nachiket heads the crack unit that moves heaven and earth to track down Nirmal, who is always two steps ahead. (Madaari means ringmaster.) As he taunts the minister in one of his several phone calls, I am so ordinary that you will never be able to identify me.
Nirmal wants to use the high-profile kidnapping to convene a kangaroo court in which the guilty parties will admit to their criminal negligence on television. As vigilante solutions for a heavily mediatised environment go, Madaari is certainly a movie for our times. Shailja Kejriwal’s story and Ritesh Shah’s screenplay leave us in doubt about which side we are supposed to choose. Nirmal puts eight-year-old Rohan in harm’s way by kidnapping the boy, drugging him, and dragging him across half of North India, but his behaviour is justified as a necessary reaction of a middle-class citizen pushed to the edge by political apathy and corruption. In any case, Rohan evokes no sympathy since he is depicted as a spoilt brat who wags his finger at his tormentor.
Irrfan’s pathos-ridden portrayal also stacks the cards in his favour. The scene in which he grieves for his son in a hospital is well played despite a misguided use of jerky handheld camerawork that does not allow us to rest our eyes on his tear-stained face.
The 133-minute vigilante drama unfolds like a thriller for the most part, with Nachiket in permanent motion, constantly entering one room and exiting the next in an attempt to show that he means business. The better sequences are the quieter moments, especially the scene in which the father of another victim tells Nirmal that he lost his grown-up son just days before he was to go to Boston for a job assignment. At least my money was saved, the father cynically tells Nirmal.
The opening credits are played over headlines and news clippings of various scams and natural disasters that laid the foundation for the Aam Aadmi Party movement, but what Madaari wants is nothing less than an overthrow of the state. In one of the most effective and chilling sequences, the home minister tells Nirmal that it isn’t the system that is corrupt. Rather, the system has been created precisely to enable graft even as smokescreens like Constitutional laws and guarantees and democratic processes like elections and the courts keep the citizenry distracted and fooled. Leftist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s inspirational poem “Bol Ke Lab Azad Hai Tere” is recited over the closing credits. If the workers of this beleaguered country won’t unite to lose their chains just yet, blame it on the movie’s intended middle-class audiences and its play on their tendency towards easy outrage. Nirmal’s rage against the machine is not new, but Ritesh Shah’s often-punchy dialogue elevates Madaari from an exploitative vigilante flick to something approaching a manifesto for genuine “Acche Din”.