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- Reviewed from the 2023 International Film Festival Rotterdam
Writer-director Devashish Makhija’s fourth feature, Joram, begins like a smart, contemporary Indian take on North by Northwest (1959), with a framed man on the run, elements of a police procedural, and a canny, energetic plumbing of high-level corruption.
Makhija efficiently establishes Dasru (Manoj Bajpayee) and Vaano (Tannishtha Chatterjee) as a carefree village couple in the northeast Indian state of Jharkhand, before catapulting us forward five years to Mumbai, where the pair are working anonymously on a building site and living in a cramped shack with their three-month-old baby Joram. Dasru, living under an assumed name, grows wary when spotted by ruthless politician Phulo Karma (Smita Tambe). He’s right to be circumspect – Dasru soon finds Vaano murdered in their home, hanging upside down.
Karma has recognised Dasru from Jharkhand as a man who assisted in the execution of her son Madhvi, who was brutally beaten to death with a nail-studded plank in front of the whole village. Through flashback we learn that Madhvi was broker for a deal that would have conned locals out of their land, with tribal rebels violently making an example of him as a result. Now, having killed Vaanu’s killer and fearing capture in the slums of Mumbai, Dasru flees back to the boondocks with his tiny son to clear his name. With the well-connected, well-resourced Karma hell-bent on revenge, the Mumbai copper on the case, Ratnakar (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), follows Dasru back home, increasingly sceptical of the justice – of both a local and a more systemic kind – that may be meted out to him.
Every key player in Joram is haunted by the past, soured by the present or both. Bajpayee is terrific as the anxious runaway, with Tambe quietly but determinedly vicious as Karma, and Ayyub’s Ratnakar bending and breaking the rules as the pressure piles on, to increasingly exciting effect. The film’s greatest sequence sees Dasru escaping Mumbai on a train, with Ratnakar and colleagues in hot pursuit: a Bressonian tension permeates as we’re up-close and immersed in a setting whose teeming, pungent atmosphere recalls Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station (1958).
When the action relocates to Jharkhand, the local police prove just as crooked as their city counterparts. Corruption, in government and law enforcement as well as among supposed friends, is endemic, but the film offers no easy answers and no resolution to Dasru’s plight. Makhija isn’t saying anything new about the world his morally comprised characters inhabit, but his film’s uncommon blend of sizzling action, lawless atmosphere and lively locations are presented with undeniable vigour and detail.