Editor’s note: This article was originally uploaded on 20 June 2020 and is being republished in light of director Nishikant Kamat’s death, at the age of 50, in Hyderabad. Dombivali Fast is among Kamat’s most critically acclaimed works, and won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Marathi in 2006.
As hard as it has been contending with a never-ending stream of the most grotesque acts of violence, and the infuriating lack action from politicians, it has also become clearer than ever that the institutions meant to uphold democracy have completely failed us. It’s only natural for a population to become angry, un-cooperative and equally inspired for change when this realisation hits. For the most part, the majority of people living under capitalism have had existences curated to maintain a complacent and easily distracted lifestyle. Once this is interrupted, we start to see a will for change, but of course, we also start to see a system designed to keep things in place begin to desperately fight back.
In Nishikant Kamat’s Dombivali Fast, middle-class bank employee Madhav Apte slowly erupts from a complacent existence filled with peripheral examples of injustice in nearly every corner of society. Adapted from Joel Schumacher’s controversial film Falling Down, Kamat’s remake substitutes the white privilege and oligarchical law-and-order messaging of the Hollywood film with a more generalised statement on the moral and ethical failure of rotten institutions within a developing nation under capitalism.
The movie wastes no time in establishing the monotonous and complacent existence of Indian middle-class life, opening with a cyclical montage running through Apte’s life from morning to night until all of his days meld into an indecipherable blur. It is with this technique that we are introduced to a man who, despite living in a stable loving household with a caring wife and kids, exists as a robot, performing mechanical duties and rote motions that are embedded so deeply into the system that they have lost all tangible or spiritual purpose.
Dombivali Fast, much like Falling Down, zeroes in on an individualist male vigilante narrative of seeking justice. In this sense, the movie’s premise itself is problematic, but what Kamat cleverly does that Schumacher completely misses is to put the focus on the system as the cultivator of corruption, violence and destruction rather than the people themselves. As is the case in many Indian films, there are sequences that reduce the story’s innovative metaphors into bite-size sermonising to make sure the audience “gets it”, particularly in a scene at the hospital where an elderly couple chastises Apte for his violent behaviour. However, this is beside the point, because as wrong as Apte is for his singular crusade of vengeance, the fact that he is alone in his anger represents exactly the sort of lack of collective community organising that has rendered social justice inert in India and other capitalist democracies for so long.
The infrastructural problems in India are unmistakably present in the film and are often shrugged off with a “chalta hai” attitude that is established as the country’s middle-class modus operandi. India is not too different from the United States in this base functionality as a nation completely beholden to norms that incentivise individualist comfort over social public improvements. When the police go to question Apte’s wife, she is completely dumbfounded as to why he could be so angry. The police as well, ask innocuous nonsensical questions like whether their marriage is doing okay. The idea of someone being sprung into action by an impulse for societal change is hardly a thought.
The beginning to middle of the 2000s marked a significant change in Indian cinema’s approach to social issues, bringing back the sort of fury that existed in the early 80s art films like Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, and Chakra. Much like them, Dombivali Fast doesn’t exist in creating divisions of good or bad, but toils with the muddled morality of reality as it is. Apte is not ‘right’ or ‘justified’ in anything that he is doing. In addition to targeting corrupt sources of power like the police and politicians, many of his actions are ironically cop-like – smashing a motorcycle that was parked in the wrong lane, or destroying a vendor cart that he felt was charging too much for drinks. But when Inspector Subhash Anaspure, a respected officer set for retirement, questions the motives and actions of Apte, and continually asks “who is the culprit?”, he is asking the right question.
Anaspure is the cop that we are supposed to root for, like Anant Valenkar in Ardh Satya or an even more apt parallel in this case, Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men. Like Ed, Anaspure is mainly a philosophical pontificator for the ideas that Kamat tries to parse about morality in the film. Because of his retirement, he begins to confront his job as a cop from an ethics standpoint, and uses Apte’s crimes as a way to parse the parasitic relationship between authority and justice. The parallels drawn between Apte and Anaspure are as helpless cogs in a system, wherein the former decides to rail against it, the other is assigned by duty to uphold it. Despite the self-awareness of Anaspure’s conversations, he maintains his position as a perpetrator of injustice and an enabler of the corruption he sees every day in his job. The film’s final statement on him maintains that the cycle continues specifically because of cops like him.
Kamat’s attacks on systemic failures in Indian society stem from ingrained behaviours that maintain a status quo. The collective will for change in Dombivali has been kneaded out, and in several monologues that Apte has at night, where he confronts himself and God directly, he questions his place as a lone rebel and whether it is worth it or even right for him to continue. Dombivali Fast presents anger and empathy in equal measure, understanding that rising against a rigged system is filled with difficult choices and designed to make one question themselves the entire way. It is a battle that fails most of the time. Fifteen years after I first watched Dombivali Fast, I am seeing on the streets of India, US, Europe, Australia, and Hong Kong, millions rise to confront their failed institutions. We too will be made to question ourselves, have doubts, coerced to give up and be complacent again.