(Note about the star rating: Please read the above rating as 0.5 out of 5 stars. Our software does not permit the graphic representation of less than one star, hence the discrepancy.)
It is called the “Cancer Train”, christened thus by locals because it transports scores of cancer patients from Bathinda in Punjab to the city of Bikaner, Rajasthan, for treatment. Available media reports suggest that the surge in cancer cases in Bathinda is a result of the uncontrolled use of pesticides by the region’s farmers. This week’s Hindi film release Irada points us in another direction: groundwater pollution caused by local industry.
For red-flagging an unnerving issue alone, Irada deserves kudos. Director Aparnaa Singh’s film is about an explosion in a plant owned by an influential businessman called Paddy Sharma (Sharad Kelkar) who derives his power from the funds he supplies to the state’s ruling party. Chief Minister Ramandeep Braitch (Divya Dutta) is in his pocket and agrees to hush up the motive behind the blast, since it might have something to do with the waste disposal methods practised at the factory. She calls in NIA officer Arjun Mishra (Arshad Warsi) to do the job for her. Also in the picture are the writer Parbjeet Walia (Naseeruddin Shah) and journalist Maya Singh (Sagarika Ghatge) whose activist boyfriend disappears under mysterious circumstances.
The basic theme is laudable no doubt, but Irada 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 Irada, dwelling instead on the authorities’ efforts to cover up their crimes. Fair enough. The story of evil is worth telling too. Sadly, here again the scanty screenplay reduces the persons involved to summaries rather than full-blown people.
Instead of being a human-interest saga, Irada tries to be a thriller. There were possibilities there too. Who engineered the blast? Why? More important, how did the culprit manage to execute the plan? On this front too, the film does not take off because its bare-bones account of the investigation is just so silly.
Mishra, for instance, stares at walls, wrings his hands and snatches deductions out of thin air. Walia recites poetry that is supposedly filled with clues – it is meant to sound clever but is not. Singh has almost nothing to do, thus ensuring that next time too we will be compelled to describe her as “Sagarika Ghatge of Chak De fame”. And the big reveal in the end is a damp squib not because it is not a surprise, but because I no longer gave a damn.
Imagine a film boasting of names like Warsi, Shah, Dutta and Rajesh Sharma in its credits, yet not extracting a single memorable moment from them in its 110 minutes. It is not that they are bad here, but that they are ordinary – which is what talented actors often are when confronted with uninspiring writing and lax direction.
It is heartbreaking for any film buff to see Warsi wander passionlessly through this project just seven days after the release of Jolly LLB 2, a brand that owes much of its recall value to his performance as the protagonist in its wonderful precursor, Jolly LLB. Is this marvellous actor doing something wrong or does Bollywood have skewed priorities, that he has been replaced in Part 2 by Akshay Kumar – a superstar no doubt, but not in the same league as an artiste – while Warsi himself is relegated to being the lead in a half-baked, low-profile venture like Irada?
That question is just a small part of the tragedy that is this new film. Punjab’s “Cancer Train” should be the subject of multiple Indian films and media reports. Little purpose is served though if you zero in on a crucial theme but do not breathe life into it. Irada (meaning: intent) is an opportunity lost to draw mass attention to a pressing concern. What a waste!