In the dialogue-less opening to Aakrosh, Bhiku (Om Puri), the Adivasi labourer looks on in chains as the body of his dead wife (Smita Patil in a cameo) is cremated before he is led away by the police to jail. The pot marked face, protruding eyes, leathery skin of Bhiku amount to an image of the lower caste worker as a subjugated, exhausted figure which typified the alternative representations of the subaltern that became associated with Parallel Cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. Bhiku’s interminable silence, arguably contradicting the attempts to articulate the subaltern as more authentic and visible, is used as a broader political metaphor anchored in the opening lyrics: ‘I am unable to endure the pain anymore…I burn from within’. Bhiku is charged with strangling his wife to death and defended by Bhaskar, an idealistic lawyer played deftly by Naseeruddin Shah. Bhaskar soon discovers that Bhiku’s case is more complex than he imagines, concealing a caste led conspiracy in which four upper caste men have raped and murdered Bhiku’s wife. Although director Govind Nihalani weaves together an effective thriller, grasping the nuances of genre, the tone of political outrage, much of which is exemplified in Bhaskar’s anger and paranoia, transforms the work into a somewhat didactic yet measured study of caste, middle class hypocrisy (a theme Nihalani returned to with great satirical accomplishment in Party) and power.
The caste politics are complicated by public prosecutor Dushane (Amrish Puri in fine form), a lower caste lawyer who is resigned to masking over his caste identity so to protect the very totalizing system into which he has been readily assimilated. Dushane is a self-hating figure, labelling Bhiku a savage tribesman who drinks alcohol and creates mayhem. However, Dushane is troubled by hostile late night phone calls that remind him of his lower caste status, tearing down the illusion of social mobility. At one point Dushane mocks Bhaskar for his apprehension, arguing the only reason Bhaskar doesn’t want to defend Bhiku is because a Brahmin sending an Adivasi tribesman to his death doesn’t look very good in today’s changing society. Having broken through the system, Dushane refuses to take up a revolutionary position, showing disdain for his fellow caste oppressed brothers like Bhiku, and choosing to endorse a corrupt, discriminatory system that continues to deny him a true sense of belonging. Dushane serves the law, nothing more. Whereas Bhaskar argues a wider ethical responsibility should take equal precedent. The machinations of a system aligned to protect the few, the privileged and upper caste is another aspect of society that writer Vijay Tendulkar delineates, conveying the ways in which the intricate cogs of an unjust system mesh together and are manifested in acts of state sanctioned violence.
If Dushane compels Bhiku to conform and serve nothing but the law, the activist and social worker working with the Adivasi in the village, is an obvious political metonym for Naxalism. The activist wants to help Bhaskar who is frustrated by his concerted attempts, all of them in vain, to gain the consensual support of Bhiku’s father and sister. In perhaps one of the most overtly didactic moments in the film, the activist, speaking like a true Naxal, tells Bhaskar the Adivasi do not need his sympathy nor pity; for anything to change there needs to be a complete uprooting of the system, the annihilation of the present, a revolutionary ideal which the middle class have kept at bay through their faux sympathies. But as we witness, any challenges or opposition to the system are swiftly snuffed out with a resounding legitimacy and contravention of the law. The attack on Bhaskar by goons working for the ruling elite is the logical conclusion of a lawlessness that permeates a claustrophobic milieu in which the Adivasi remain mute in fear of reprisals and sanctions, be it economic or social.
Where Aakrosh falters is in the abrupt ending. Having tried unsuccessfully to defend Bhiku, Bhaskar and Dushane have a final confrontation. In some respects, when Bhiku takes the life of his sister, hacking her to death at the funeral of his father, that is when the film should have finished; a bleak ending but one deserving of a such a cruel system. Instead, the exchange between Bhaskar and Dushane strives to privilege the worth of Brahmin intervention, thereby undermining the caste agenda, reducing subaltern agency to something insubstantial and underdeveloped. Dushane wants to protect the position of power he has carved out but it comes at the expense of closing the door behind him, leaving a lower caste status in the past as though it never existed. The ending implies the Brahminical saviour seems to be the only one who is incorruptible while it could be argued that Bikhu’s silence ultimately rings hollow, suppressing the momentum of political angst.