The Protest: Busan Review

While boasting top-notch production values, the film flounders as it stretches itself too thin over too many story threads and also ideological underpinnings.

Prakash Jha’s big-budget political thriller fails to answer its own questions about how the Indian political landscape can be transformed.

The austerity of truth is better than the grandeur of lies,” says a police captain who, in one of The Protest’s most dramatic scenes, decides to abandon his official post to join the anti-corruption public movement at the center of the film. It’s a line director (and co-screenwriter) Prakash Jha should have dwelled on more in his latest $7.7 million political epic. While boasting top-notch production values rivaling any of his Bollywood peers, the film flounders as it stretches itself too thin over too many story threads and also ideological underpinnings.

It’s perhaps a surprise that the film found its way into the Busan International Film Festival’s program, since even Indian audiences have seemingly seen through the weaknesses of the film. Despite boasting an A-list cast — including Abitabh Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor and Ajay Devgan — and a story seeking to tap into public discontent about the political establishment, the film saw below-par financial returns and mixed notices at home. It’s unlikely that The Protest will be gaining further traction in overseas markets anytime soon.

As Bollywood productions go, the film’s technical aspects are nearly impeccable with its colossal scenes of explosive public uproar — most transformed into de rigueur all-out musical numbers, of course — and also the obligatory whoozy romantic scenes. Meanwhile, Jha and co-writer Anjum Rajabali have conjured relentless drama, drawing on personality conflicts between Bachchan’s upstanding teacher Dwarka Anand and his protégé Manav Raghvendra played by Devgan.

 The political-thriller element of the drama begins when Dwarka’s son is killed in a freak traffic accident. Dwarka’s run-in with a corrupt local official over his son’s death soon snowballs into a widespread anti-graft movement, led by Manav — whose about face from greedy entrepreneur to conscientious activist is never really properly explained.    

And however much the film seems to be about people power — one of the central songs in the film is Janta Rocks, or “The Public Rocks” — Jha’s film remains firmly entrenched in commercial Indian cinema’s star-driven mythology. The Protest is all about one man’s stand: its moral seems to be how the masses are inherently a mob-in-waiting and are not to be trusted, while younger generations will simply resort to crooked ways in order to attain their goals.

To make matters worse, some of the potentially interesting questions about how social activism is to engage with real politics, as proferred in the film’s final half hour, are never really properly addressed. It’s all a tad too much, resulting in a mass entertainment exercise that ultimately buckles under the weight of its own murky ambitions.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival, Window on Asian Cinema

Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Ajay Devgan, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Arjun Rampal, Manoj Bajpayee, Amrita Rao

Director: Prakash Jha

153 minutes