Synopsis – A mysterious bomb blast in a business tycoon’s factory prompts the state CM to hire an NIA officer. He meets an ex-army man seeking revenge for his dead daughter and a journalist demanding justice for her slain boyfriend. Nothing is what it seems.
My Take – It’s always a pleasure to see when a well-intentioned film with a possible riveting story releases in between the usual Bollywood leave your brains aside set of films. Right from the trailers, this film by debut director Aparnaa Singh seemed like a brave attempt to look into the ecological disaster occurring in Punjab where unsuspecting citizens face terrifying health hazards as a result of the nexus between politicians and businessmen in the state, and most importantly give us a look into the presence of a ‘cancer train’ with chilling efficiency. Christened by locals with the eerie name, the train transports scores of cancer patients, most of them farmers from Punjab, who seek affordable treatment, from Bathinda in Punjab to the city of Bikaner, Rajasthan, for treatment. Scientists and researchers claim that the soil and water levels in parts of the state have become so toxic that the Green Revolution of Punjab has become a cesspool of dangerous chemicals and carcinogenic toxins. Here, director Aparnaa Singh’s film has all the factual details in place, and even has some great performers sinking their teeth into pivotal roles, and of course, for story telling purposes, a fictional mix of events about righteous citizens turning detectives and vigilantes against powerful corporations. For red-flagging an unnerving issue alone, the film deserves kudos. However, when the end credits of the film begin rolling in, my only parting thought was: how does one botch such a fantastic concept? Borrowing heavily from Hollywood films such as Julia Roberts starring Erin Brockovich (2000) and to an extend Mel Gibson starring Edge of Darkness (2010), the film despite all right strings, suffers from an oversimplified plot and an amateurish execution along with the tidy ending taking away the enormity of the situation. Every frame of the film builds up hope of a thriller, especially with performers like Arshad Warsi and Naseeruddin Shah matching each other’s talent, but the director with her inept handling can’t help but gets on your nerves. Blame it on the director for the film‘s sloppy editing, the film just fails to hold your undivided attention. Tackling a fairly simple story, she takes on the plight of people in Punjab reeling under the repercussions of reverse boring in Punjab.
The story follows NIA officer Arjun Mishra (Arshad Warsi), who is brought in by Madam Chief Minister Ramandeep Braitch (Divya Dutta) to unearth the mystery behind the bomb blast which took down business tycon and major political funder Paddy Singh’s (Sharat Kelker) chemical factory. With the promise of a promotion and a possible stint at the Prime Minister’s Office for Arjun, all he has to do is follow Ramandeep’s tart orders – file a report that exonerates Paddy and hang the blame on an employee who has killed himself. She makes it clear to him that he need not put his heart and soul into the investigation, mainly as Paddy wants to close the investigation of his factory blast at the earliest, so that he may claim the insurance. Arjun, of course, is a conscientious law-abiding officer who would take no nonsense from anyone. His young son, with whom he keeps having regular telephonic conversations, thinks the world of him, and expects his dad to do be a filmi cop. Arjun’s curiosity eventually leads him to Parabjeet Walia (Naseeruddin Shah), a retired defense personal; who lost is daughter Riya (Rumana Molla), a pilot in training, to cancer and blames Paddy Singh & his company for toxicating the water where Riya used to rigorously exercise. Arjun is also hounded by Maya Singh (Sagarika Ghatge), a journalist, who claims to have found all the facts to prove Paddy’s guilt in the reverse boring and the murder of her RTI activist boyfriend (Nikhil Pandey). What follows is an elaborate whodunit, merged with shayari, single malts, smoking, research, and a conclusion you know in the first half hour tops, if you’ve watched a fair number of crime thrillers. Groundwater pollution, reverse boring and other environmental toxic and hazardous contamination raise contemporary ecological issues that have caused disasters in the state. In fact, Ludhiana amounts for the maximum number of cancer patients in the country, and busts the myth about prosperity in Punjab. This is a film that could have been a superb take on how the political-industrial-corporate (in no particular order) nexus is destroying and poisoning the world’s food chain systemically even as it ruins young lives and shatters the dreams of their loved ones. The film also advocates solutions that ordinary viewers will be hard-pressed to replicate, despite its concerns are timely, its character sketches unmemorable, and its empathy mistakable. This is after all an old-fashioned conspiracy thriller in which the righteous are justified in their actions, however unlawful they may be, and the evildoers are just the right shade of black. Here, Singh and co-writer Anushka Rajan dredge up problems that cannot be tackled through official channels. Yet, the director’s poor conviction bulldozes through the most indulging and worthy moments. A flashback to a holiday taken by Parabjeet and Riya is little more than an excuse to showcase actress Rumana Molla’s histrionic talents. Parabjeet’s questionable actions, and the film’s endorsement of them, also indicate that Singh’s resolve to tackle the economic roots of pollution and its relationship with cancer is weakening.
While there’s no faulting the film’s intentions, the narrative is poorly crafted and clumsily executed. As much as it’s a treat to watch the cast, the two song montages are irritants and the production values a big downer. The film fails to expand the premise into a relatable flesh-and-blood story peopled by flesh-and-blood sufferers. If we view it purely for its worth as a documentary, the information it provides is sketchy. As a fiction feature, it has limited value because it deals in broad brush strokes and a macro view of the situation instead of drawing us into a micro view of individuals reeling under this calamity. There is a woman in a hospital whose child looks on as she tells a cop about a sacrifice her husband made to pay for her treatment. Perhaps we could have been better acquainted with her? Or that mother who describes the train’s passengers to a stranger as matter-of-factly as if she were speaking of a regular tourist vehicle? But no, the writers – Singh herself with Anushka Ranjan – give these characters mere seconds in the film, dwelling instead on the authorities’ efforts to cover up their crimes. But amateur handling of such an important subject lets even actors of the calibre of Shah and Dutta, start overplaying, particularly, Dutta. The script’s unflagging inspiration beyond a point looks simplistic, in the sense trying to project the harsh realities of Punjab; the writers fail miserably to get to the point. The investigation itself looks hollow, and at times, not in sync with the largely authentic subject of the film. There was obviously a story here, but director Singh doesn’t make it compelling, as it lacks focus and energy, not to mention a character like Paddy, the chief villain, which is facile and thin. The worst part of what is touted as India’s first eco-thriller is that the director-writer has no clue how to handle such a complex subject and multi-channeled thriller. The result is jerky, amateurish and supremely boring. Even before the interval point, the audience gets either restive or completely apathetic to the protagonists. Thrillers dealing with ecology and human indifference to it are tough subjects to write and make — as director John Matthew Matthan had found out with the Ajay Devgan- Shahid Kapoor starrer Shikhar (2005). The end has a fair double twist, and the way the CM is exposed, leading to a chain reaction is very quick and thus interesting. There are moments — very rare — when we get the feel of a taut detective thriller, but that accounts for less than five minutes in about 109 minutes of run time. One such example is the sequence where Parabjeet knows that Arjun has searched his home in his absence and proves it to him. There is nothing said directly by either party. The songs are passable, but look forced into the film. So are the flashbacks, whether they are of Maya or of Parabjeet involving Riya. The action is negligible and the editing languid. The technical values are just alright, the background score included. The few times I found myself completely engrossed in the film during the 109-minute saga is thanks to the astonishingly accomplished yet under rated Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi. Both actors are on top of their game and one can’t help but wish they were seen on screen more often and in meatier roles. Here, Naseeruddin Shah is in one of his most sincere recent performances and goes through his paces with no difficulty at all; he has played a similar character in A Wednesday. Arshad Warsi turns out a charming and relaxed performance and impresses more in the serious parts. Sharad Kelkar is perfectly cast as the dapper businessman whose empire is built on corpses, while Divya Dutta is a doozy as the imperious head of state whose wickedness is more far-reaching than Paddy’s corruption. Chakde India girl Sagarika Ghatge is good, but tends to get a little out of gear in some demanding scenes. Rumana Molla is competent. On the whole, ‘Irada’ is well intentioned yet convoluted film which despite good performances is let down by poor execution and a loosely woven script.
Directed – Aparnaa Singh
Rated – PG15
Run Time – 109 minutes