An off-screen narrator dispassionately delivers the terse news account that on December 25, 1978, the body of an Adivasi tribeswoman named Lahanya Nagi (Smita Patil), was found at the bottom of a dry, abandoned well near the village of Kondachiwadi, as the image of the somber faces of a group of resigned villagers, having quietly assembled at a clearing on a dark, still night, are illuminated by the intermittent glow of a nearby fire. A stoic and inscrutable man, Lahanya Bhiku (Om Puri), wearing a crude restraining device fashioned from rope tied across his torso, then advances with a lit torch towards what is revealed to be the funeral pyre for his late wife, Nagi, before being led away by the authorities to prison. The following day, the impassive Bhiku is brought to court for his arraignment on the murder of his wife, but refuses to respond to the charges brought before him, much to the irritation of the presiding judge who is eager to conduct a swift trial, and to the bewilderment of Lahanya’s public defender, an energetic and idealistic young lawyer, Baskhar Kulkarni (Naseeruddin Shah) who finds himself pitted in his first, independent case against his mentor and family friend, a seasoned prosecutor named Dusane. Frustrated by his own client’s enigmatic silence and unwillingness to provide a motive or proclaim his innocence, nor cooperate in the formulation of his own defense strategy, Baskhar embarks on an independent investigation into the facts surrounding the seemingly clear-cut case, leading him to a wary and evasive editor of the weekly periodical National Welfare who had recently published a case involving the mysterious death of another Adivasi tribeswoman at a hotel, his client’s equally inhospitable and guarded ancestral village as he attempts to interview Bhiku’s elderly father and young sister, a well-intentioned Marxist “social worker” (and perhaps, a Naxalite agitator) who has come to the remote country to help the tribal village organize a collective, and a wealthy businessman, Bhonsle and his politically connected cronies who employ the Adivasis as menial laborers for his lucrative logging operations.
Govind Nihalani creates a lucid, richly textured, and pungently incisive commentary on class stratification, exploitation, and the amorphous (and often malleable) interrelation between law and justice in Aakrosh. From the opening image of a handcuffed and literally leashed Bhiku, Nihalani illustrates the inescapable marginalization and subjugation of the poor and dispossessed (often from the fourth – and lowest – Hindu class of Shudras) in contemporary Indian society. Moreover, through the anonymous telephone caller’s hostility towards (and implicit resistance of) Dusane’s upward mobility from tribal to professional (and seemingly successful integration into privileged society), Baskhar’s (a Brahmin) socially problematic role as advocate for the lower caste Bhiku, and the radical social worker’s controversial presence among the Adivasi in an attempt to incite revolution in the village towards a path to self-sufficiency, Nihalani presents a complex portrait of the social entrenchment of traditional caste (varnas) that arises, not out of human weakness, complacency, or inertia, but as a resigned impotence towards the incestuous union of power, wealth, and authority, as well as the systematic intimidation and victimization – the silencing – of the underprivileged. Inevitably, it is this pervasive dehumanization that propels Bhiku’s unconscionable act: a desperate coup de grace borne, not out of madness or displaced rage, but a tragic sense of merciful liberation from the inescapable corruption of privilege.
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