Every now and then comes an Indian film that dares to examine social injustice. Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, which will be released on June 28, is one such film. Based on several real-life incidents of caste discrimination, Article 15 combines the social drama with the police procedural. It stars Ayushmann Khurrana as the leader of a team that investigates the rapes and murders of two Dalit girls and the disappearance of a third.

Article 15 (2019).

The use of two narrative styles to tell a searing story of injustice is also evident in one of the classics of Indian arthouse cinema. Aakrosh (1980), shot and directed by Govind Nihalani, combined the social drama with the conspiracy thriller. An impoverished tribal is accused of killing his wife. His defence lawyer sets out to investigate, but gets nowhere. And then the phone begins to ring at night.

Nihalani’s Aakrosh cannot be confused with Priyadarshan’s film of the same name. Priyadarshan’s Aakrosh (2010), heavily inspired by the Hollywood movie Mississippi Burning (1988), stars Ajay Devgn and Akshaye Khanna as government investigators who unravel the truth about the disappearance of three students. An attempt to craft a realistic look at how tightly-woven community networks obstruct justice gives way to a vigilante climax that pleases everybody – but makes little sense in the real world.

Aakrosh – “Anger” – takes no short-cuts. The opening credits, which are intercut with a summary of the case against Lahanya Bhiku (Om Puri), play out over ominous background music. There is no triumphal march into the sunset, no contrived happy ending, and no quick-fix solution for the deeply institutionalised exploitation of one of India’s most marginalised communities.

The movie is set in a town in Maharashtra large enough to have a district sessions court and small enough to be ruled by a handful of inter-connected men. The tribals are under the thumb of the henchmen of the local politician and have little control over their lives. The men are reined in through alcohol, the women are easy prey.

Most of the tribal characters say very little or nothing at all about whether Lahanya is responsible for the murder of his wife Nagi (Smita Patil). Lahanya too has taken refuge behind a terrifying silence, which frustrates his defence lawyer Bhaskar Kulkarni (Naseeruddin Shah). Lahanya’s anguished face reveals some part of the story. There are moments when his lips seem on the verge of saying something, but throughout the film, he never exchanges a word with Bhaskar.

Lahanya speaks only in the flashbacks, when, in a drunken state, he warns Nagi about her naivete. Nagi has caught the eye of her bosses, and Lahanya rightly fears the worst.

The flare-up is followed by an unforeseen moment of sensuality. An incarcerated Lahanya remembers the horrible bits but also the good ones – a moment of lovemaking with Nagi, depicted through abstract close-ups. Nihalani had shot several Shyam Benegal films before he became a filmmaker with Aakrosh, and his fluid shot-taking, bold use of black tones and shadows, and ability to encase the faces of actors in memorable close-ups are all on display in his debut. (The version being streamed on Hotstar has inexplicably cut out the lovemaking scene, but the YouTube video by Shemaroo has retained it).

Smita Patil in Aakrosh (1980). Courtesy Krishna Films.

Lahanya’s silence is only one of many obstacles for Bhaskar, the idealistic apprentice of the local hotshot public prosecutor Dussane (Amrish Puri). A local newspaper editor who is threatening to publish the truth is roughed up. The doctor who conducted Nagi’s post-mortem stands up Bhaskar. The advocate begins to get threats and mysterious knocks on the door from a source who claims to know something.

Early on in the film, a piece of furniture in the courtroom is revealed to have been donated by Dussane – he is the system itself. And yet, Dussane learns that his position is precarious. He begins to receive threatening phone calls, which remind him of his tribal origins and accuse him of betraying his roots. In his films, Nihalani frequently explored the moral dilemmas faced by individuals tackling deeply embedded corruption and injustice. In Aakrosh, the phone calls tell Dussane that however high he may climb, he will never be allowed to forget his place.

Despite clearly being set in the late 1970s and in an identifiable Maharashtrian milieu, the screenplay by Vijay Tendulkar, with dialogue by Satyadev Dubey, has a timeless quality. The travails of the tribals, the easily crushed attempts by an activist to organise them, the pervasiveness of the system that claims Nagi and Lahanya as scalps – these happened then, and they continue to happen now.

Nihalani’s spare filming style relies heavily on the performances to create an atmosphere of dread. Amrish Puri, a fine actor later reduced to hamming his way through mainstream Hindi films, is in superb form as the prosecutor who has sold his soul. Smita Patil is on the screen for a few minutes, and they are unforgettable.

Amrish Puri in Aakrosh (1980). Courtesy Krishna Films.

Naseeruddin Shah too turns out a nuanced performance as the lawyer whose upper-caste status and naivete shield him from the truth until it is too late. The movie belongs to Om Puri, who provides a minor master class in acting. Puri uses his blazing eyes and the slightest shifts in facial expression to communicate centuries of tribal suffering.

“Om’s blazing salt-of-the-earth intensity finally caught the eye of many a film-maker but it was Govind Nihalani who first recognised the magnetic simplicity in his screen presence…” Naseeruddin Shah wrote in his memoir And Then One Day (Penguin India, 2015). This was “Om’s definitive film performance”, Shah writes, and that is an understatement.

Other arthouse cinema regulars show up in key supporting roles – Mohan Agashe, Achyut Potdar, Arvind Deshpande. Eminent writer Mahesh Elkunchwar, who wrote the screenplay for Nihalani’s Party (1984), plays the social activist who brings Bhaskar on level with the realities of the tribals.

As the noose tightens around Lahanya, there’s little left for Bhaskar to do than take the moral high ground against Dussane. The greater expression of the anger suggested by the title is by Lahanya. Lahanya’s self-censorship finally erupts in a scream in the harrowing climax. In the classic tradition of the social drama, Aakrosh reveals uncomfortable truths about the ways in which the power elite function. And in the classic tradition of the conspiracy thriller, the movie also reveals the lengths to which this elite will go to protect its turf. Lahanya’s silence is much more than a metaphor – it represents a truth so apparent that it does not even need to be expressed to be understood.

Naseeruddin Shah in Aakrosh (1980). Courtesy Krishna Films.

Also read:

Film flashback: ‘Mirch Masala’ had something to say about MeToo back in the 1980s

Film flashback: A Kannada comedy from 1978 about a power-mad actor makes complete sense today

Film flashback: Before ‘Tubelight’, ‘Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani’ dreamt of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai

Film flashback: ‘Shiva’, from the days when Ram Gopal Varma was truly great

Film flashback: ‘Bhumika’ is one of the best Indian biopics about the messy life of a movie star

Film flashback: Shyam Benegal’s ‘Nishant’ is an unforgettable portrait of violence and revolt

Film flashback: In Mrinal Sen’s ‘Kharij’, a young boy dies and nobody cares (except the director)