DM-21C: The Salaakhen Manual (Part-I)

If one were to summarize the history of Hindi cinema in a few sentences, it might go thus. The late 40s and the 50s were, what can be called with some justification, the Golden Age of Hindi cinema. The 60s were not so bad, but things started going wrong from around the mid-70s and they got really bad in the 80s, until there was some recovery in the late 80s and then, after going through the turmoil brought in by the changes around the world and in India, in the previous decade (the 00s), Hindi cinema (now called ‘Bollywood’) had a structural re-adjustment and it has now become centred more around the multiplexes in the cities, which has some positive implications, but many very negative ones.

The positive ones include the fact that now it is more feasible to make niche movies of the very commercial kind, which might not necessarily have to surrender to the lowest common denominator criterion, which was the hallmark of the movies in the late 70s and the 80s. That criterion has not gone away, it has just acquired new characteristics as required by the structural re-adjustment. But one has to concede that some good movies have come out of these changes, just as there have been some positive changes in other aspects of life, for example the wider reach of communications technology and, say, the ease with which you can book seats on the Indian Railways or on the flights.

The negative changes are related to the fact that it is no longer necessary to consider the needs and interests of the 100%. You can get away with, say, just 10 or 15%. Or may be 30% at the most.

But going back to movies, like in Hollywood, there had always been an element of anti-establishment angle (even if of the pseudo variety) in movies made for the masses, not to mention in the New Wave cinema of Shyam Benegal and others. In the 21st century, however, if there is any anti-establishment tilt in the movies (it is hard to find), it is either completely fake or of a kind that suits the structural re-adjustment. This too is similar to what has happened with Hollywood movies, and I guess to all movies around the world, to varying degrees.

The term ‘Bollywood’ itself is quite illustrative of another fact, a mocking play of words as it is, that among the more literate and the more, let’s say, ‘progressive’ circles (note the quotes), in India as well as around the world, the made-for-masses Hindi movies (or other such movies made in other Indian languages) have quite a low prestige. I myself cannot claim to be a big fan of them, though I would only be lying if I said I didn’t like them even when I was a child.

Therefore, it is rare that you come across somewhat recent Bollywood movies which leave a lasting impression on you and surprise you by their (flawed or very flawed) brilliance, which might even be unintended, or so the more sophisticated would like to believe. About a decade or so ago, when I was still watching some television, the state television channel of India that I grew up with, called Doordarshan (literally television) showed one movie that was just such a rare movie. This movie was called ‘Salaakhen’ (Prison Bars), the one made in 1998.

It was, in most respects, a regular Bollywood poitboiler, full of all the masala, all the usual ingredients. It starred Sunny Deol, the son of Dharmendra, the super-star of the 70s and early eighties, himself quite a star, mainly of ‘action’ movies. So it had, as usual, its Hero and his Heroine and their romance, complete with song and dance. It had a proper villain, played by the iconic villain-playing actor Amrish Puri, who acted in some of the New Wave movies in the early days of his career and whose brother Om Puri was a very major actor of the New Wave movies of the forgotten days. In my opinion, he has been one of the best actors in Indian cinema. But now he (Om Puri) too, like many others from the New Wave movement and so many other progressive and/or anti-establishment movements, has gone through the structural re-adjustment.

Before you proceed, please note that this not a review. Nor do I claim that I remember the details of the plot exactly. I don’t have access to it now. But even if there is an error in the plot description, the essence of what is important about this film can be verified to be correct. That is, if you are the kind that is prepared to see and is also prepared to say what you see. This is relevant here, as you will see below.

Bollywood movies, and perhaps all blockbuster movies, require a very strong ‘character actor’ and this movie had one of the greatest actors of India in this capacity. He is Anupam Kher. In this movie, he played the Hero’s father. He too has gone through … but then he never was in the New Wave cinema.

In terms of high level description of the movie’s plot, it is just another one of those injustice (by powerful people) and revenge kind of story. But the details matter here. And so do the execution of the idea.

The movie can be divided into two very different parts, so clearly divided that you can draw a very clear line between them. The difference is so stark that you can keep wondering whether the parts were made by the same people.

The story is set in a city. It is probably Mumbai but it could be any other city in India. The first part of the movie centres around the character of the Hero’s father, played by Anupam Kher at his best. He is a Hindi teacher (not a very glamorous thing to be) and his character, again, if you describe in high level terms, is just an archetype. He is an idealist. He is a teetotaler. He is free from any kind of corruption. He is a good father and a good husband. The family too is a very happy family. Everyone devoted to everyone else. The teacher has made the lives of many students and some of them (or their parents) tend to stop on their way to thank him when they come across him on the streets. Though he is an idealist, he does not seem to be what one would call a rebel, but that changes a little bit when we find out more about him later in the film. But he is a bit of an activist, helping people with their problems, taking up some causes.

So things start, all being very well in this family and, in the meanwhile, the Hero has his mandatory romance and there are a few (not many if I remember correctly, may be just two) songs. There is also comic relief, another very important ingredient of Hindi movies made for the masses, in the form of the Heroine’s father, played by another well know actor of Hindi cinema. Then, when the romance part has been taken care of, and the Hero and the Heroine are united, something happens that takes the story to a different level, as it were.

This event is related to the film’s villain, not surprisingly. As it happens, his son is as much of a villain as he is, only a little stupid. As he and his gang of rich spoiit brats roam the streets of the city, they one day openly abduct a lower class girl at night. This does not seem to be very unusual for them, only it goes somewhat wrong, thanks to the Hero’s father.

The girl is not found again and it becomes a major scandal and news. Till this time the family had nothing to do with the villain and his family and his empire through which the city is ruled, but now they become entangled with the empire, because the villain is a very powerful and influential man and is also a popular politician. He has the police chief in his pocket and he has great business interests, which sometimes requires very nasty things to be done, which he gets done, even as he plays the people’s politician, looking after their interests.

Nothing out of the ordinary up to this point for a Bollywood movie of the 20th century. But now the family becomes entangled with the villain’s little empire because the Hero’s father happens to be there when the abduction of the girl happens. He is an eyewitness to that.

Since he is not quite a rebel and he also has a family and a job, doing the work that he likes to do, he remains quiet about this, even though he is very disturbed by what he saw.

He probably resolves to remain quiet, but as his discomfort mounts, he wanders into a public meeting (being held in an open ground, as such meetings are usually held) at which the bigwigs of the city are giving speeches. The villain, the political leader, is damning the police for not ensuring the security of the people and allowing things like abduction of that girl to take place. He berates the police for not doing its job. The police chief is sitting right there among the speakers (not among the audience), the same one who is in his pocket.

The speech goes on and the public, the audience, applauds. The idealistic teacher slowly walks through the aisles, increasingly agitated, and as he reaches the stage from where the villain is giving his speech, he finally abandons his resolve and shouts out to the audience, asking them (with great feeling) not to stupidly applaud such people. The police chief stands up, intending to stop the interruption, but the politician is smarter. He stops the police chief, admonishing him, and invites the teacher on to the stage and asks him to address the audience. The teacher, being too agitated to think of the consequences, blurts out all. That it was the son of the very same politician who abducted that girl. The same politician who is talking about the interests of the people and their safety and about that girl being abducted from the streets openely. He goes on to say that the police always complain that when such things happen, no one comes to be a witness as everyone is afraid to do so. He says here I am. I was a witness to that abduction and I am giving my testimony now. Will the police now take up the matter and arrest the politician’s son?

The politician responds as politicians do anywhere, especially in India. He promises that justice will be done.

First of all, at his home, he calls his son and severely admonishes him. He tells him that it is okay to do such things in your youth, but it is a shame that you have such low taste. And to get caught. And so on.

Then he calls the police chief, who assures him that he will take care of it. And so the ordeal starts for the teacher.

The trial also starts sometime later and the defence lawyer is another friend of the politician. The lawyer (an Indian) returns from some foreign land to take up the case. He is another archetype of a villain, the kind you might have seen in movies from anywhere in the world, but in this case the details matter. And the details, like all other details in this part of the film, cannot be accurately described in writing because the medium is different and the power of the medium is used quite well to carry the message, almost artistically and very effectively. Not to mention the power of the language. The film is in Hindi and for some reason I am writing about it in English. In a Hindi movie for the masses, the ‘dialogues’ matter. ‘Dialogues’ is a Hindi word that means, roughly, great spoken lines or just spoken lines, depending on the context. I won’t even try to render them authentically. You can’t say the same things to exactly the same effect in English. Period.

Remember that this movie was made when the fundamentalism of the religion of the Market and Liberalization had still not percolated down to the middle class and the lower middle class, although the process had been on its way.

In a meeting at the house of the politician (who is also a big businessman, demolishing slums to clear land on which profits can be made), the lawyer and the police chief meet to discuss. About how to resolve the matter of the stubbborn teacher who refuses to shut up and back down from his charges.

The lawyer gives a memorable speech at this meeting. He says, about the teacher, that he is a man who thinks with his heart, not his mind. And when a man thinks with his heart, it is advisable to strike at his mind.

That is the plan that the wise rulers take to keep their troubles away. He doesn’t explicitly say that, but that’s the idea.

Strange things start happening to him. It begins (I may have forgotten a few things) by the police chief coming with heavily armed policemen to the teacher’s house to ask him to sign on a paper that states his willingness to be a witness at the trial. Like any other good wife will do, the teacher’s wife tries her best to dissuade the teacher from signing the paper. Remember also that getting involved with the Law is a curse that people in India give to someone when they want to show their enmity to that person. It is like saying, plague be on your house. The police chief talks very politely to the teacher, just asking him to sign to be the witness, but his every statement carries a barely hidden threat that is plain enough for anyone to see except those who have decided that they won’t see, or, if they see, they will ignore. The teacher’s wife knows what is coming and says so, as would have most people in India under those circumstances. Well, she doesn’t know the details, of course, but she says that something horrible is going to happen.

As the police cheif sits facing the teacher in the teacher’s house, with the paper to be signed on the table between them, armed policmen are standing behind the chief with their guns, as if unwittingly, pointed right at the teacher. Everyone in the family notices that. The chief notices that everyone has noticed, and then he scolds the policemen to turn the guns away. He says, this time in pretty rough language, that the gun is loaded. That the man will die. Aadmi mar jayega. True words.

As the teacher’s wife tries him to prevent him from signing and as the police chief plays out the terror tactics very politely, the teacher takes some time to decide. But the Hero being the Hero, he sees how important it is for his father and gives him his own pen to go ahead and sign the paper. The teacher does so.

As the teacher now goes to the temple (he is not only an idealist, he is also a God-fearing man), he goes up to the priest to take the prasaad, the divine offering offered in Hindu temples, and something is placed in his hands as he bows down his head in prayer and folds his hands. Then he sees what was placed in his hands: a live scorpion, which he drops, terrified. He asks the priest about this and priest denies it and asks him to look below and there are only flowers there. And there is the divine offering. No sign of the scorpion.

As he is also a kind man, kind to animals too, he goes (as part of his daily routine) to feed pigeons. As he is doing that, there is a sound of a gunshot and all the pigeons fly away. He looks around and sees that there is only one policeman around who could have done that. He asks him why did he scare away the pigeons, but the policeman denies that he fired the shot.

As part of giving his testimony, he is taken to the police station, sometimes in the night, right from the middle of the meal that the family is having. At the station, he is harassed in similar ways. Always under the cloak of politeness. When he protests, he is told that since he has decided to come forward and be a witness, he should be prepared to face some problems. Otherwise he should have declined to agree. He can still do so.

When he is dropped back to his home from the station in the police jeep, the jeep is driven backwards. When he asks why is the jeep being driven backward (all the way to his home), everyone in the jeep denies that the jeep is being driven backwards. When he is dropped, everyone laughs and implies that he has gone mad.

He tries to tell his family about these things (which he mentions even in the court after being provoked enough), but they are skeptical. They say that he is under a lot of stress and he might be imagining things. He tries to argue that this is not so and he picks up his bag to take something out of it. As he does so, a small bottle of whiskey (a quarter) drops out of the bag and is shattered on the floor. This startles everyone. He says, with great emotion, that it might be that he is imagining some things, that something is going wrong with his mind, but certainly it could not be that he has started drinking. It has to be mentioned again that he is an archetype for whom driniking is a big sin. Something unthinkable. It is not very hard to find people in India who have similar opinions about drinking (alcohol). Since the family knows him well enough to realize that this could not have been his doing, that something is indeed being done to him as a result of his decision to be a witness to the crime committed by those who rule the city.

Now the son, the Hero decides to accompany his father to the police station to be sure that such things do not happen. But he is not allowed to go in to the room where they are questioning the teacher. As he waits outside, he notices the same man who had brought back the bag that his father had forgotten at the station on the day the bottle fell out of his bag. That man is a policeman. The son goes and confronts the policeman, who of course denies that he did anything of the kind. This leads to a fight between the two and the son lands up in the lockup for assaulting a policeman.

At the trial, the teacher sticks to his guns and gives his testimony. He is grilled ruthlessly as the villainous lawyers do in popular movies and perhaps also in real life, but in a different way and to a different degree.

Details about his past are digged out by the the lawyer and his team (with the collusion of the police). He is presented with mixed up details to confuse him. He is ruthlessly grilled about his past jobs. It turns out that he had quit his jobs or was sacked more than once in the past. On one occassion he even got into a fight with someone. The teacher says that, yes, one time he had left the job because he didn’t like what was being done in the name of education and the second time he was sacked because he had come to know about someone who was doing something wrong (with the collusion of others), spoiling students’ lives and he had got into an argument with that person. But this, he says, has nothing to do with the trial.

Till now the idea was that the teacher will be terrorized into backing out from giving his testimony and the matter will be settled, so to say, peacefully. But as the teacher, though increasingly distracted, seems to be firm in going ahead, it is time for more serious measures. First, the politician plays a little game. He calls his son, starts abusing and beating him for doing such a horrible thing and he continues to do so as he drags him to the police station, publicly. This makes news, as intended. He even makes the beating almost real, so that the son, being a little stupid, complains bitterly.

Simultaneously, the lawyer, the chief planner now in the war against the teacher to defend the empire, pronounces some more words of great wisdom.

He says this is a city where people don’t see. When they do see, they don’t speak. And this is a man who not only sees, he also speaks. So now I am going to show him something that will cost him very dearly to speak about.

He then turns to the police chief and asks him to release the politician’s son for just a few hours. The teacher had seen the abduction at night when he was returning to his home at around 11 o’clock. So on this day, just as he comes out of the train station, he witnesses something happening again. The same person, the politician’s son, who is supposed to be in the jail, is with his gang and he is once again abducting a girl in the same manner as he did before. Only this time it is a fake abduction. This time, the timings and a few details, however, are a little different.

The teacher obviously decides to remain quiet about this. Who won’t? The next day, at the trial, he is grilled again by the lawyer. He is asked once again about the minute details. He protests that he has already described everything several times, but he is asked to reply anyway again as it is a matter of great importance, which it obviously is, as the teacher has to concede. He is grilled about the date and the time and the place repeatedly till he, distracted as he is, given the things that have been happening to him, till he mixes up the details of the two incidents. He even blurts out about the second incident. This is what the lawyer was waiting for. He catches on to this and tries to discredit the whole testimony. He suggests that the teacher is suffering from a mental disease, and he describes in detail the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia (though he doesn’t take the name, as the movie is for the masses). He says the teacher may have imagined things. He says the person who suffers from this disease mistakes one event for another, one object for another.

At this point the teacher loses his temper, perhaps ‘snaps’, and he protests loudly that he is perfectly sane. That he knows what this object is and what it is used for and what that object is what that is used for. He suddenly walks up to an armed policeman standing nearby and takes out his gun and says I know that this is a gun. I know that this can be used to kill a man. You want to know how? This is how!

He puts the gun to his own head and pulls the trigger. The little empire’s little plan has succeeded.

I have no inclination to try to explain why this part of the film is remarkable and why it makes this film different from any other such populist blockbuster film of the past. You might want to watch it if you can.

For me, the movie ends there. After this, when the son comes out of jail, he goes on the revenge mission. He seeks out everyone involved and one by one kills them. This second part of the movie is basically an action movie. Nothing impressive. Still, there are bits which stand out. Such as when he finally goes to the lawyer’s house, we find him (the evil lawyer we have seen earlier) having a perfectly normal dinner and perfectly normal coversation with his family and perhaps friends. In his house, he looks just like any other decent upper middle class person. There is nothing to indicate what he has been doing. I mean he is not sitting there planning another rampage and terror campaigne. He looks like just a regular guy.

What happens in the end does not interest me because it is the usual stuff, not to be taken seriously. But just to relate to the title of the film, I should mention that the film starts with the news of a search being made for a person who had ruthlessly killed several people and ends with a meeting being held about a prisoner (the Hero, the teacher’s son). His story is told in a flashback. And when the flashback ends, he has ended telling his story to the luminaries who have gathered to decide his fate. They free him, but he gives a little speech about first setting things right in the society, mocking them for showing their generosity by freeing him, and walks out defiantly.

Just one other detail (that interested me so little that I forgot about it). Before he is freed and after he kills those people, he hires at a very high price another famous lawyer, who gets him acquitted on the strength of false testimonies. The Hero kills him right in the court to show what should be done to people who do such things, i.e., get the guilty acquitted through their money and power (and get the innocent punished?).

(I found out just now that the film is available on the YouTube after all. Be warned that it is a loud movie, very noisy, like most Bollywood movies of its kind. And, actually, what I have been calling the second part is separated into two equal parts, separated by the flashback, i.e., what I have called the first part. So there is a rather long prologue and a similarly long epilogue, perhaps dictated by market demands).

But the film is about the teacher, who is never behind real bars. But for him the city and the world in which he lives has itself become a prison, once he starts seeing and once he starts speaking about what he has seen.

The film is also, perhaps more importantly so, about the lawyer’s words of wisdom. That’s how I see it, at least.

What if that lawyer and the whole gang that rule the city had access to the surveillance and communications technology available in the year 2012? Not to mention privatized prisons.


Did I mention that the teacher was a narcissist? The day after he had publicly declared at that meeting what he had seen, he goes to his wife enthusiastically with the newspaper and says, see! everything has been printed, I am not just a teacher earning Rs. 700 per month, there is still some justice left in the world.

He is also given to self-pity, as you might have guessed from the plot summary. So may be he is just a deviant and a psycho and everything is alright with the world, so no need to worry.

Perhaps the movie is about paranoid schizophrenia and the teacher did imagine things. Perhaps he had committed the crime himself? Who knows?


So you thought it applied to lefty, commie-fairy big-wigs and their gangs? Just what I had predicted.

Of course, it could apply to some of them, but it is much more likely to apply to the other kinds.