In Hindi, “Irada” translates to “intention.” But while writer/director Aparnaa Singh’s feature has a noble one, it’s too often blurred by execution that falls short on almost every level. The social relevance angle is apparent; in fact, the heart-wrenching illumination of Punjab’s chemically-contaminated water and illegal reverse boring practices, and their cancerous effects on the community, bears a vague but unmistakable resemblance to the discoveries Julia Roberts made as Erin Brockovich in the 2000 film. But around that theme swirls several overlapping stories and issues competing for attention.
One is that of Parabjeet Walia (Naseeruddin Shah)—whose daughter Riya (Rumana Molla) develops terminal cancer from swimming in the tainted water—and his potential involvement with the mysterious bombing of tycoon Paddy Sharma’s (Sharad Kelkar) pharmaceutical company, which has suspicious ties to the toxic material. The incident’s investigation is helmed by Arjun Mishra (Arshad Warsi), a new-in-town police officer who is among the few left in his force resistant to bribes and extortion. Arjun, however, must deal with the unscrupulous and neglectful State Department, headed by chief minister Ramandeep Braitch (Divya Dutta) who co-conspires with Paddy to prioritize power over public health. While the plot still seems coherent enough on paper, a lot about the movie fails to cohere.
Unfortunately, that’s more to do with its amateur treatment by debutant director Singh than its effectiveness as an “eco-thriller.” Along with co-screenwriter Anushka Rajan, Singh pens a self-righteous screenplay that trips over its self-imposed pressure. She swerves from one half-baked subplot to another as the father-daughter story morphs abruptly into a rather predictable whodunit case, which then swerves into a fight against corruption. The side story of a journalist, Maya (Sagarika Ghatke), out to avenge the death of her boyfriend who was murdered while attempting to expose Paddy, looks poised to be central to the drama in the first 20 minutes — but it’s unceremoniously relegated to the background by the end of the film. Meanwhile, antagonists Paddy and Ramandeep all but disappear midway through the first act and much of the movie feels like a one-sided fight against unperturbed villains, which is hardly as exciting to watch.
With scenes patched together through flashbacks and songs fit in as though at random, the editing does nothing to provide either further engagement or clarification. The writing regularly ignores the “show, don’t tell” rule, with characters spelling out motives, schemes, and implications before giving the audience a real chance to relish in even the slightest suspense. The character types are resoundingly shallow: from Parabjeet’s ambiguous occupation as an army man-turned-physical-trainer-turned-writer, to Ramandeep’s one-dimensionality as a crooked politician. Singh and Rajan rely far too heavily on clunky, theatrical one-liners (Maya’s outburst of “I will expose you! I will expose all of you!” to a roomful of Paddy’s supporters is just one of several cringe-inducing examples). Even a veteran actor like Shah, who can usually lift the most tired of scripts with his pitch-perfect delivery, can’t make this one feel more authentic; he often appears disinterested, and his interactions with his daughter—impersonal in the first half, suddenly sappy in the second—are touching more because we know the context of her illness, not because of any particularly poignant moments.
The inconsistencies continue with Warsi, the new cop in town whose subtle deadpan comic timing — a stark contrast to Parabjeet’s somberness — further confuses the film’s overall tone. However, bringing a refreshing combination of sensitivity and levity to the heavy-handed dialogue, he’s easily the most watchable part of the film, along with one genuinely heart-wrenching moment in which Arjun boards a “cancer train” (a reality in Punjab), and witnesses passengers receiving blood and chemo packages as they are transported to a hospital in a neighboring town. It’s daring for any filmmaker—let alone a first-timer—to take on an issue that is both underrepresented and susceptible to India’s stringent film censorship powers, and Singh’s objective to highlight the shocking effects of chemical contamination is certainly noteworthy. But in not knowing whether it wants to be a heartfelt, chilling or activist story, “Irada”’ ends up being none, suggesting that perhaps good intentions aren’t always enough.
“Irada” is now in theaters in India and the U.S.