Monday, November 10, 2014

Dr. Prakash Baba Amte - The Real Hero (2014)

Marathi cinema comes of age, and how! In an era mired by formulaic elements of action, double entendre comedy, romance, glamour and item numbers governing the blueprint of any movie in the making, comes along a real story, of a real human being. So while most other Indian filmmakers were still in the process of concocting the perfect potboiler to make a saleable hotcake to cater to families and frontbenchers alike, and in the process, creating some pre-release buzz in the form of the number of bikini scenes or kissing scenes that their films would contain, filmmaker Samruddhi Porey dared to think differently and concentrated only on two things - a strong central figure, and most importantly, substance; a powerful and relevant subject. 

"Dr. Prakash Baba Amte - The Real Hero" is the awe-inspiring tale of a human being of a different breed that is genuine and rare; a personality whose example would make most of us, including the powers that be, both bow in admiration and hang our heads in shame, for it makes us realize how little we have seen and done in our lives. This is the unbelievable, but true saga of a noble soul who dedicated his entire adult life to the development and progress of the tribes in the shockingly primitive, cocooned village of Hemalkasa in the Gadchiroli district in the Indian state of Maharashtra. The story revolves around the unrelenting efforts of Ramon Magsaysay award winner Dr. Prakash Amte in civilizing this godforsaken land. Dr. Amte is the son of renowned social worker Baba Amte, who worked for the betterment of people suffering from leprosy, which was considered a social stigma in our ignorant society, when he took up the task.

Hemalkasa was the jungle land of the Madia tribe, a tribe so cut away from society, it seemed like a Herculean task getting them to understand even the ABC of civilization. These were the adivasis (tribals) who couldn't grasp any other language than their own. Worse, they had no awareness of the progress that humanity had made in the 70s and hence, still continued their ape-like existence. Illiteracy prevailed; with a lack of facilities or medical centers, children were born almost without any help, their umbilical cords severed with the help of stones! The Naxalite movement prevailed in the district at the time. Tribals exploited at the hands of corrupt police officials turned to Naxalism.

In such a turbulent environment, the great visionary Dr. Prakash Amte, who had only visited Hemalkasa once for pleasure, decided to stay there and work for the downtrodden, put his medical knowledge and expertise to maximum use in the welfare of these backward individuals; to make them aware of civilization, to make them human! And this, he pulled off, after a long struggle, with the aid of his ever loyal wife, Dr. Mandakini, and a few of his aides who stood by his side.

In a tough atmosphere, where the locals were hopelessly sandwiched and suffocated by corrupt cops, witch doctors, superstition and black magic from all sides, Dr. Prakash Amte took up the daunting task of bringing a change. The courage, determination, and devotion of this man deserves all the accolades in the world. A man of such an iron will, and noble aspirations, was sadly neglected for many years, though. The guy and his team survived without electricity in that village for 20 years, and braved all the storms and severe weather conditions. They sheltered the locals in their own hut and their courtyard so they could administer their medicine themselves, for these people understood zilch of the instructions given to them. Hell, how do you make someone who consumes a pill with its whole wrapper understand when and how he is supposed to take the medicine!

But Dr. Amte had faith. He stuck to his guns, despite some shades of hopelessness displayed by his wife. Nevertheless, she always stood with him and kept on. This was a man who could've had a comfortable life practising medicine in the city. But the selfless soul in him chose the other form of existence that he learnt from his father - living for others. This is an important man, a man whose name and contribution to society needs more recognition and awareness. This was a story that needed to be told in these days of selfish apathy and human intolerance.

Does Samruddhi Porey do justice to this great man? For the most part, she succeeds. The narrative unfolds in flashbacks, providing the right backdrop and circumstances that were an integral part of the situation in which Dr. Amte realized his dream. The rural land of Hemalkasa is captured in all its scenic beauty. The physical beauty and the ugliness of the affairs in the village are contrasted perfectly. The screenplay tries to incorporate a lot of Dr. Amte's altruistic deeds including an instance of how he gave a new lease of life to an oppressed tribal boy turned naxalite, by bringing him out of the jungles and into the light, eventually making a successful American M.S. Graduate out of him! 

Only in this process, Ms. Porey spends a lot of time chronicling the atrocities inflicted by exploitative, drunk cops on Puru's hapless mother who was forced to become a victim of their lustful desires, in return for her husband's freedom. Not that this episode isn't important, but its presentation and treatment resembles a classic Marathi B-movie with its caricaturish, villainous village authorities, inebriated and exploiting the poor. This episode serves as a reminder of the harrowing times of exploitation and forced incorporation of innocent victims into Naxalism, but is ultimately rendered inconsequential, because it goes nowhere.

Still more flashbacks narrate the most challenging aspect of Dr. Amte's life; reaching out to the tribals, communicating with them, and eventually their upliftment and empowerment. Once this bit comes in, the narrative gains momentum, and the struggle begins to show its tough-as-nails form. Porey infuses a good amount of some welcome light humour in this part, specifically the curing of the first patient they get in two years of settling in the village. This seemingly dying patient miraculously wakes up like a zombie and starts walking away on his own, even picking up a bottle of liquid medicine, probably taking it to be liquor!

This is a moment of great triumph for the doctor, who now begins to gain confidence and a good word of mouth popularity. In an ironic twist of fate, the witch doctor, whose attempts at sacrificing a child in order to cure a man are thwarted by Dr. Amte, comes begging for Dr. Amte's aid in curing his child; a unique eye-opener for most of the ignorant, illiterate tribe. Portrayed along the way, is Dr. Amte's atheism, his vegetarianism as the only thread linking him to his Brahmin roots and a great love for animals. The man who never even tasted eggs, brought home dead animals to feed his pets, consisting of tigers, leopards, bears, and other wild animals, giving way to some great light moments in the film, especially one pertaining to an incompetent forest officer.

The humour comes hand in hand with heartwarming and poignant moments of self-sacrifice on the footsteps of Gandhi. Dr. Amte refuses to wear a shirt upon seeing how the locals shiver in the cold of the night without any shelter on them. The sheer frustration, angst and helplessness rears its head when Dr. Amte has to perform a difficult operation for dismembering an unborn infant to save its mother's life, for lack of proper facilities. Some of the events depicted on screen are disturbing to say the least, but quite necessary in the film's context and for making the viewer aware of the kind of sad reality that our country has lived with. Porey strikes a neat balance of ups and downs, sadness and joy in the journey of Dr. Amte and his crew in bringing about the great change in the village of Hemalkasa.

For most of the final three-fourths, the film progresses in a smooth fashion. Some wonderful, touching episodes strike the right emotional chord. The effort, the struggle, the selflessness, the steadfast, unwavering determination of Dr. Amte are brought forth quite effectively. Nana Patekar's towering, stellar act, makes it all the more convincing and inspirational. This is undoubtedly among his career best performances and arguably his greatest performance in at least two decades during which Bollywood had reduced him to a hamming caricature of his own self. Sonali Kulkarni complements as his loving, faithful wife, commendably in yet another natural act. These two powerful central performances along with able supporting acts by Dr. Mohan Agashe and others go a long way in making Dr. Amte and team's struggle seem believable.

The problem areas are mostly to do with editing, a patchy narrative and some unimpressive choices made to show footage that was clearly out of the filmmakers' reach, possibly due to budget constraints. And hence, it lessens the quality of the overall picture when you see a cheap computer generated tiger emerge from the waters, some wildlife footage lifted straight from the National Geographic and Discovery channels and a really tacky shot of a paper cut-out bird flying in the sky. 

Adding to the cons are some needlessly lengthened, melodramatic moments, clubbed with some stilted dialog, especially in the climax and the death of a pet leopard. Do we really need exaggerated drama in a biopic that is attempting to tell a straight, factual story? A particular narrative thread that is introduced with full focus is suddenly abandoned; the one in the very beginning involving a tourist from the Philippines. And then, some characters age and even change physically (other actors fill their shoes) while others remain ageless. It would've also been of benefit to display dates or years of certain watershed events to make the time jumps and gaps clearer.

Multiple and international filming locations were probably not possible, and hence the makers chose to intersperse some shots of sights and streets, from somewhere in the U.S.A. It is evident that these shots were taken on another camera, probably a low resolution digital camera, and hence later when these frames are incorporated with the main film, their visibly poor quality shows. 

The hotel lobby which we are led to believe is in a hotel in New York, is actually the lobby of a famous hotel in Mumbai. This is excusable though, considering the general picture of a hotel lobby was essential here and nothing else. However, what cannot be easily overlooked is the existence of the round pin electric plug points in the hotel rooms that the camera clearly pans on several times, giving away the fact that the scene was shot in India and not in the U.S.A., where flat pin plug points is a standard.

Minor issues, yes, but issues nevertheless, that stain an otherwise ambitious and important cinematic product that could've been immaculate. Regardless of the technical areas that needed work, "Dr. Prakash Baba Amte - The Real Hero" is a very important Indian motion picture telling the story of a very important person; a human being above all others, an inspiration that is rare in today's times. 

Watch this film. Witness the stark reality of our developing nation that is more concerned about a mission to Mars, than reaching out to remote areas and bringing our country folk out of the dark and giving them better living conditions. Shatter your ignorance. Come out of your bubble of bliss. Make yourself aware, and spread the word to make others aware. 

Score: 7/10

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