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O.P. Srivastava travels back in time to reflect on Ardh Satya, a blockbuster bak in the 80s.

OmPuri in Govind Nihalani's Ardh Satya(1983)

Ardh Satya (Half Truth) is a 1983 Hindi film directed by Govind Nihalani, his second after the angst-ridden Aakrosh. Manmohan Shetty and Pradeep Uppoor produced the film. Based on the short story Surya by SD Panvalkar, it is said that Ardh Satya was inspired by the real-life battle between Vardrajan Mudaliar, the don of Dharavi-Matunga, and the then Deputy Commissioner of Police, YC Pawar. Vijay Tendulkar wrote the film’s screenplay.

Renu Saluja, a four-time recipient of National Award, edited the film, which has a runtime of 130 minutes. Vasant Dev, a writer, lyricist, screenwriter and a Hindi academic at Parle College in Mumbai, wrote the dialogues. Dev worked in Hindi parallel cinema through the 1980s, alongside directors like Shyam Benegal, Nihalani and Mahesh Bhatt. He is best known for writing ‘Sanjh Dhale Gagan Tale’ sung by Suresh Wadkar and ‘Man Kyun Behka’, a Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle duet in Utsav (1984), directed by Girish Karnad.

The film stars Om Puri, Smita Patil, Amrish Puri, Sadashiv Amrapurkar, Shafi Inamdar, Naseeruddin Shah and Madan Jain. Puri won the National Award for Best Actor for this film in 1984. At the same time, Nihalani won Best Director and the producers got the National Award for Best Film.

Smita Patil in Govind Nihalani's Ardh Satya(1983)

Nihalani started as an ad filmmaker and went on to work on eight of Shyam Benegal’s movies, including Manthan, Nishant, Bhumika and Junoon, as a cinematographer. After successfully branching off on his own with Aakrosh, Nihalani himself became an institution of parallel cinema with Vijeta (1982), Ardh Satya (1983), Party (1984), Tamas (1987; a TV series), Drohkal (1994) and Hazar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1997). Unlike Shyam Benegal, who believed in letting the actors improvise, Nihalani is known for demanding repeated takes until the actor produces the performance he is looking for.

On the surface, Ardh Satya is a story of an upright policeman, sub-inspector Anant Valenkar (Om Puri) from Gole Chowki police station, battling a cynical system. The character was too real to be ignored – he beats up a prisoner under trial in a moment of intoxication and heightened frustration, then uses the same corrupt system he detests to save his skin. The stark authenticity of Ardh Satya’s characters stemmed from the space in which they existed. Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar) was not a villain-in-a-vacuum like commercial cinema’s baddies; he was a cog in the wheel of a corrupt political structure, manipulating his way up from being a petty don to an elected representative who could influence the working of the government to shield his nefarious activities.

Anant’s struggle with truths and half-truths about the operation of evil in society form the core of Ardh Satya’s bleak yet riveting story. The film is not merely an exposé of police corruption and misconduct; what makes it powerful is what it reveals about the toll these realities take on human beings who want to rise above them but struggle to find the strength to do so.

Amrish Puri & OmPuri in Govind Nihalini's Ardh Satya(1983)

Amrapurkar, a stage actor from Marathi theatre, with his large magnetic eyes, dark complexion, deep voice and silently intimidating body language made the character of Rama Shetty highly realistic and relatable, both for lovers of art cinema as well as commercial cinema audiences.

The gritty reality of Ardh Satya was Vijay Tendulkar’s forte, but the veteran playwright was equally perceptive about another important reality, that of the human mind. The story was path breaking not for just depicting political reality but also its subtext – it was the first film in which the protagonist’s central conflict was with his own demons, rather than an external force. In this film, the plot was not the only significant aspect; the protagonist himself was equally impactful. Nihalani builds up the graph of Anant Velankar’s mental turbulence using the contrasts of light and dark shades to reflect the aakrosh (anger) and ardh satya (half-truth) in the protagonist’s internal journey. The dialogues were hard-hitting, no holds barred.

In the middle of its intense drama, the film also features a poem (which gives the film its title), Ardh Satya, by the Marathi writer Dilip Chitre. The poem, which Velankar reads aloud, metaphorically describes the situation he is trapped in – the crossroads of life, where he finds himself fighting a losing battle with his own self. ‘Chakrvyuh mein ghusne se pehle kaun tha main aur kaisa tha? Yeh mujhe yaad hi na rahega’ (before entering the circle of deceit, who I was and what I was, I would not remember).

Om Puri,Madhuri Purandare & Amrish Puri in Govind Nihalani's Ardh Satya (1983)

Several other parallel cinema films that preceded Ardh Satya were just as realistic and compelling, but they were quieter. Ardh Satya brought the pent-up aakrosh, gritty drama and realism into the realm of being popular cinema.

In the next decade, Ardh Satya also paved the way for the genre of films that dealt with the underworld; urban-centric films like Satya and Vastav portrayed the dark underbelly of Mumbai.

Ardh Satya was the first ‘art’ film to break the boundaries between parallel and popular cinema. It was the first art film to become as popular as a mainstream film, and it gave parallel cinema the acceptance and popularity it deserved. This recognition of parallel cinema came in 1983–84, when popular money spinners like Coolie (Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor), Razia Sultan (Hema Malini, Dharmendra) and Himmatwala (Jitendra, Sridevi) were released.With Aakrosh and Ardh Satya, the legendary Om Puri (one of the architects of parallel cinema) changed the face of Hindi cinema literally and metaphorically. He convinced the audience to look at the film rather than a face!

O.P. Srivastava is a Mumbai based filmmaker, writer &cinephile.

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