A common concept that’s applied while watching an actor accused of some kind of crime in an otherwise good movie is “separating the art from the artist.” It seems like a very elitist take because you’re basically asking your audience to keep their morality aside for a few hours to be entertained. The Indian entertainment industry (especially Bollywood) is taking this exercise to the next level by asking their viewers to “embrace the politics of the movie/show and merge it with their real-life politics.” Now, that’s difficult because the politics of the movie or show and real-life politics are inhumane, bigoted, look for opportunities to attack minorities, are anti-freedom-of-speech and for hate speech, and whitewash the actions (or inactions) of those in power. So, what chance does a movie like “Dasvi (2022)” have, which is centered around a Chief Minister and a police officer, in this politically toxic climate?
Directed by Tushar Jalota and written by Suresh Nair, Ritesh Shah, and Sandeep Leyzell, “Dasvi” tells the story of CM Ganga Ram Chaudhary (Abhishek A Bachchan), who is summoned to a sessions court for being involved in a scam regarding the admission of students to schools. Ganga presumes that since he’s the CM, the judiciary is on his side, and the judge will proclaim that he’s not guilty, thereby allowing him to contest in the upcoming state elections. But quite the opposite happens. He’s sent to jail until the investigation into the scam is over (which means he won’t be able to stand in the elections), forced to appoint his soft-spoken wife, Bimla Devi Choudhary (Nimrat Kaur), as the CM, and compelled by police officer Jyoti Deswal (Yami Gautam Dhar) to discard his police-backed privileges. Which essentially means he has to sleep, eat, and work like every other inmate. Things take a turn for the worse when Bimla takes a liking to her position as the acting CM and starts dreaming of usurping Ganga permanently.
Let’s start discussing the objectively good things first and uneasily ease into the gray and black aspects of “Dasvi.” The acting here is a slam dunk. Bachchan leads from the front and delivers a performance that’s on the brink of being over-the-top (just like the movie’s tone) but never goes off the edge. He aptly realizes Ganga’s cartoonish antics and yet makes him human enough to feel real and impressionable. He’s good enough to (almost) make you root for a politician as corrupt as Ganga. Yami, as the no-nonsense police officer, doesn’t need to use her fists or any weapon to school Ganga. Her command over her vocal range and physique is immaculate as she goes toe-to-toe with Bachchan, sometimes even overpowering him. Nimrat Kaur effortlessly portrays the transition of Bimla from her timid to her strong-woman persona. All of her solo scenes, including the ones with Bachchan and Chittaranjan Tripathy, are electrifying. The movie boasts of a stellar supporting cast in the form of Dhanveer Singh, Abhimanyu Yadav, Shivankit Singh Parihar, Manu Rishi Chadha, Arun Kushwaha, Sumit Shekhar Rai, Rohit Tiwari, Shrikant Verma, and Danish Husain, who are all excellent.
Everyone’s accents keep slipping time and again, but that’s mostly forgivable.
From a technical standpoint, art director Nitin Wable, production designer Mayur Barathe, costume designer Sheetal Iqbal Sharma, sound designer Sohel Sanwari, editor A. Sreekar Prasad, director of photography Kabir Tejpal, and director Tushar Jalota don’t do anything very dynamic for the first 44 minutes of “Dasvi.” It’s pretty by-the-numbers, and there’s nothing wrong with that because making things look standard takes a lot of effort. But at the 44-minute mark, the filmmakers begin to play around with the set, lighting, time, and physics of the scenes to give the audience a subjective viewing experience of Ganga’s educational escapades. The VFX artists at Post Solutions, headed by VFX supervisor Vikas Savlani, pull off some neat tricks to visualize Ganga’s dyslexia (I’m guessing it’s dyslexia because Ganga refers to Taare Zameen Par while expressing his inability to read and write in Hindi). And just when you think the movie is done pulling visual stunts, it goes one step deeper by (kind of) accurately recreating the various eras of India’s freedom struggle to show how it’s impacting Ganga. All that said, the over-stretched story, cliched dialogue-writing, and Sachin-Jigar’s annoying background score might hamper your enjoyment of the aforementioned elements.
That brings us to politics and its fictionalization by the makers of “Dasvi.” There is a disclaimer at the beginning saying that the movie is a work of fiction, which usually means that the movie wants you to press the “suspension of disbelief” button and enjoy the movie in isolation. And that’s fine, customary, and obvious. But since it inserts catchphrases like “Fit India,” “Atmanirbhar,” “Anti-national,” etc. in its dialogue, catchphrases that have been used by the political parties in power in India in real life to shirk responsibility and vilify those who critique their policies, the act of separating real-life politics from the movie’s fictional politics becomes tough. It’s apparent that Jalota, Nair, Shah, and Leyzell’s hearts are in the right place. Through its characters, “Dasvi” wants the world to prioritize education over everything else, put an end to corruption, reject casteism, and promote young politicians who are actually young and want real progress. However, due to the blurring of the line between real-life and fictional politics, those aspects seem like the same kind of virtue-signaling that politicians do in order to secure votes. They seem unrealistic because, as soon as the credits roll, we are stepping into an India where none of that happens or likely will happen.
You can say that that’s just me projecting my feelings onto “Dasvi” and disregarding the movie’s real intent. Well, yes, I am, because cinema is a subjective medium, but that doesn’t mean that I am disregarding the movie’s intent. I am fully taking it into consideration and coming to the conclusion that it’s too simplified and too saccharine to exist in this space. Since the movie is integrating real-life politics into its fictional world, how am I supposed to just ignore that the movie is whitewashing politicians and police officers (two professions that are nationally under the spotlight for various unconstitutional activities) and then letting them off the hook just so that it can end on a picture-perfect note? Who wouldn’t love to live in a world where a politician understands the importance of education, understands that one should learn from history and not repeat it, and understands that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? However, since reality (not history) has evidence that these values are being upheld by activists, independent journalists (who haven’t yet been bought by those in power), upstanding citizens, and not by politicians, police officers, and bureaucrats, everything about “Dasvi” feels bloated with optimism that’s in need of a reality check.
So, in closing, “Dasvi” is packed to the brim with brilliant performances, visual storytelling, and idealism. If you are completely unaware of India’s political climate or possess the ability to view the movie’s fictionalization of real-life politics in isolation, then there’s a good chance that you will enjoy it. The melodrama, the background score, and the dialogues might get on your nerves. But maybe the optimistic ending will win you over. If you are aware of India’s political climate and do not possess the ability to view the movie’s fictionalization of real-life politics in isolation, then this is going to be a tough watch. The melodrama, the background score, and the dialogue will make you cringe. And the overly optimistic ending will definitely send you off the edge, leaving with you a vague sense of appreciation for the dedicated performances, inventive visuals, and message about understanding the importance of education.
“Dasvi” is a 2022 comedy-drama film directed by Tushar Jalota and written by Suresh Nair, Ritesh Shah, and Sandeep Leyzell. It is streaming on Netflix.