Even though there has been a glut of films about the victims of terrorist attacks and those arrested on mere suspicion, the subject is still a rich soil that can yield more.
The quality of such films largely depends on the freshness of the perspective. Is it a new approach to the story? Is the plotline unconventional? Is the dialogue original and unique?
There are many elements to take into consideration that could turn such an appealing topic into an astounding film.
“Madholal Keep Walking, the Indian entry in the international competition of the Cairo International Film Festival, unfortunately fails to bring anything new to the table.
It’s definitely not the first Indian film to explore the lives of the victims of terrorist attacks. There were others before it and some have participated in the very same Cairo competition. But those who went to the screening expecting a fresh perspective or a unique story were disappointed.
The film willingly falls into the trap of straightforwardness and at certain scenes is all-out preachy. At the post-screening press conference, the director Jai Tank considered it a compliment that viewers found the message direct. He felt no need for complication especially that the protagonist is a “simple man.
The title character is a security guard at a bank in Mumbai. The first part of the film follows his simple, relatively uncomplicated life: his relationship with his wife, his two daughters and the group of friends he enjoys the daily train commute with. Being a Hindu, his relationship with his Muslim neighbor Anwar is highlighted as superb. They are friends, and Anwar has feelings for Madholal’s daughter.
When Madholal needed money for his daughter’s birthday, his colleague at the bank was happy to lend it to him.
It is all peachy so far. That is of course until the train Madholal takes one day explodes. He survives, but loses his right arm.
He wakes up from a short coma a different man: frightened, easily startled, and overall unstable. He doesn’t like the change but can’t help it.
The sight of an unattended bag in a public place propels him to take his wife by the arm to protect her from a possible explosion. He doesn’t have the courage to call and check on his friends to see if any survived. His withdrawal from life worries his wife, eldest daughter and neighbor. And gradually he loses faith in God.
In essence, any plot that treads such a topic is a guaranteed tearjerker and surely thought-provoking, especially that at one point Anwar is arrested for suspicions he might be involved in the explosion. But “Madholal isn’t so, mainly because this story sounds better on paper than on the screen.
There are good moments and few signs that Tank has what it takes to masterfully dabble in the world of refined screen emotions. But here, over-dramatization and overacting ruins a lot of what could have been great scenes.
Even though it’s not exactly a Bollywood production, music is used to emphasize dramatic turns in the plot. But instead of helping the emotional build up, it ruins it by overplaying the simple emotions and revelations.
But while the weaving in of music and songs has its virtues – the joyous song before the explosion of the train is one such example – it’s the dialogue that’s the worst offender here.
The bluntness of the dialogue borders on the unbelievable and at many times insults the intelligence of the average viewer. It also destroys what could’ve been better portrayed through subtle gestures.
The in-your-face message that seeps through every utterance confirms the hypothesis that the film is made to preach to people rather than to reach out to them.
Towards the end of the film, when Madholal declares that he has lost faith and indicates that he wants to shut himself in, his daughter, who now has to work to support the family, gives out a monologue on the virtues of embracing life in an attempt to convince her father to look for work.
In the final scene, when Madholal takes the train, still hesitant and fearful, he meets his commuting friends. They tell him they survived and kept on using the train. They reproach him for being a coward and for withdrawing from life. He admits that he’s a coward, but sees nothing wrong in fearing death after looking it in the eye. They give him a collective sermon about how by giving in to his fears he fulfills the goals of the terrorists, but defying threats and embracing life is the best victory the millions of Indians could have over the handful of terrorists.
The saving grace of this blunt preachy scene, which doesn’t offer anything new to the debate about confronting terrorism, is that at the end Madholal realizes that he was actually having the conversation with other people and that his friends had perished in the explosion. But this twist can only do so much. The final sermon emphasizes what any viewer couldn’t have possibly missed throughout the film, and its candidness defies all schools of refined filmmaking.
The film ends on Madholal, empowered by the sermon, standing on the train with late journalist Dorothy Thompson’s quote “Only when we are no longer afraid, do we begin to live appearing on the screen.
The only subplot left without closure was that of Anwar. He is never released and it’s up for Madholal to decide whether he believes his best friend was involved in the explosion or not. The director said that he wanted this side of the story to be the topic of discussion later on, to spur debate on the tendency to arrest Muslims after similar attacks.
If only he had the same approach throughout the film…