Habib Faisal’s new movie Qaidi Band is a very earnest and occasionally preachy heart-in-the-right place movie. It’s aimed at “the youth”, that catchall category of viewers whose tastes and politics (or their lack) drive the business of cinema these days. To these young people, Faisal has an important message: don’t take your freedom for granted, because life in prison is nasty, brutish and, as the unlawful incarceration of undertrials in India proves, not short at all.
Qaidi Band best succeeds in its unvarnished portrayal of prison life, where favours are bought and sold, violence is poured upon the inmates by the staff, and hope is perennially in short supply. Each of the main characters, led by Sanju (Aadar Jain) and Bindu (Anya Singh), is awaiting trial for crimes that they inadvertently committed – a contrived way to gain audience sympathy. Undertrials accused of serious crimes who are serving more time than they should because of delays in the legal system deserve our sympathy and help too.
A band is formed in prison when the cruel warden Dhulia (Sachin Pilgaonkar) comes up with the idea in order to curry favour with his superiors. The band’s first performance goes viral after it is recorded by journalists, and a minister tells Dhulia to keep up the good work in order to get in the “youth vote” and a promotion.
The band continues to perform with immense reluctance under duress, and Faisal makes the point well that prisoners are always at the mercy of the law and order machinery. Despite their viral videos and the fame they enjoy outside the prison walls, little changes on the inside for the band members.
The point is most powerfully made in the sequence in which Bindu goes to court for her bail application with her head held high and her eyes shining with hope, only to return to her cell defeated and crumpled. Each of the other band members – played by Mikhail Yawalkar, Peter Muxxa Manuel and Prince Parvinder Singh – turns in sincere performances, and Aadar Jain is competent in his debut performance. But the most affecting turn is by Anya Singh, who handles all her scenes with sensitivity and maturity.
Of course it’s too good to last. Qaidi Band is ultimately a prisoner of the need for a happy ending. The convoluted fairytale climax stretches credibility and converts the band’s ill-advised attempt to escape into a thrilling adventure.
Faisal effectively depicts prison life and makes all the right noises about the state of undertrials in India. The movie is dedicated to Machang Lalung, who spent 54 years in prison without being brought to trial, and who was finally released in 2005 after the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission. The hope-filled and buoyant ending, then, undermines some of the good work in the rest of the movie. Faisal suggests that it is easy enough to be framed for crimes and thrown into the slammer. But surely it can’t be this simple to get out?