Filmmaker Habib Faisal wants to enlighten viewers about the emotional plight of the undertrials in his latest film Qaidi Band. The film starts off by narrating the true story of Machang Lalung who was in prison in Assam for 54 years awaiting a verdict for a crime that at maximum deserved a 10-year sentence. He was found not guilty. It’s an immediate hook. Instead of a biopic, Faisal, also the writer, takes a different approach – music as a means to highlight the undertrials’ agony and frustration as they wait for freedom. Faisal’s fourth feature starts out on a promising note, introducing viewers to a plethora of characters who are brought together because of an Independence Day concert in their prison, and the limbo status of undertrials in jail. They don’t wear uniforms and can’t work because they aren’t convicted.
The undertrials here include Sanju (Aadar Jain), Bindu (Anya Singh), Maskeen aka Musky (Prince Parvinder Singh), Ogu (Peter Muxxa Manuel), Rufi (Mikhail Yawalkar), Tatyana (Anna Ador) and Sange (Cyndy Khojol). The diverse religious-racial background of the characters is a tool to show how prejudice is rampant in prisons. Inmates bear both verbal and physical abuse as they are embroiled in a daily game of survival of the fittest. It’s one of the reasons why Qaidi Band’s first half works because it immerses viewers into a new world and its ways. This isn’t your standard prison film in which inmates eat hard rotis and raw onions. Here they warm up their dal and rotis by bribing a few officials and do odd jobs such as eyebrow threading to earn a living. In one revelatory scene a female prisoner dresses up and leaves her child behind with another to earn a few bucks. It is followed by Bindu delivering a passionate defence for mothers forced into prostitution in prisons. It’s this didactic approach to a significant issue that hurts Qaidi Band despite its good intent.
Why have characters with shades of grey when audience sympathy can be won by tragic stories? Of course all the undertrial characters are in for a crime they didn’t commit, or accidentally committed in desperate circumstances or for good reason. Music is their release offering them the brief spells of happiness. When the “I am India” track goes viral on the internet, the bandmates become pawns of a local politician who wants to use their songs to win “youth” votes. It’s one of the early telltale signs that Qaidi Band will fall short on the promise it delivered early on. The film soon becomes a preachy lecture on the sloppy judicial system. The Sainanis escape with the hope to win a competition and then harp on about the virtues of freedom at a rock concert. But Qaidi Band joins Noor in the league of films that’s convinced that social media campaigns, street protests and bad media coverage is all it takes to solve a problem and make a difference in society. If only it was that easy.
If Faisal paints a sensitive portrait of undertrials in India, the same cannot be said for his understanding of the rock concert scene. Sanju and Bindu would most likely have things hurled at them for their uninhibited display of mush on stage. Aadar Jain is watchable as the cynical Sanju who has a change of heart after he falls for Bindu, but it is Anya Singh who impresses the most as the affable young woman who is hopeful and helpful. Even as the film ventures into unreal and mawkish territory, her Anya remains an idealist, firm that there is good in the world
That undertrials in Indian jails can live in limbo, swinging between hope and despair for a long, long time is a good, solid subject for a film. And when the film begins, with the mention of Machang Lalung who spent 54 years—most of a man’s life– in prison, you hope for something that will do justice for people in search for just that—justice.
A bunch of young and young-ish undertrials come together to form a band, and what begins as something that starts under duress, turns into a song for their ‘azaadi’. Sanju (Jain), Bindu (Anya), Tatyana (Ador, seen before this in Gurgaon), Musky (Parvinder), Ogu (Manuel), Rufi (Yawalkar) and Sange (Khojol) is the rag-tag gang, and the inclusion of a Black man, and a girl from the North East allows the film to make important points about racism and discrimination, even in a place where the entire populace is discriminated against.
The actors all do their job, but the film is so careful to be prison lite that nothing seems real: even the dust of the prison grounds is air-brushed. Anything which could have revealed the horrific degree of physical abuse is cut short: the place is run by a jailer (Sachin : good to see him back in Hindi cinema) who kow-tows to authority.
The plot’s insistence on taking pot-shots at the usual suspects (politicians and the police and the ‘system’) makes it preachy. And the way the rock-band arena is used to solve a climactic problem is far from credible.
More realism would have made this a film we could have believed in. But we do take away the young faces with us, especially Anya Singh whose bright-eyed earnestness is wholly convincing. She is a real find.