A senior inspector gone rogue sits across his adversary from the underworld mafia. Clinking their glasses filled with single malt, both men down their drink like they’ve waited to sit across from each other for a long time. And as they get talking, the inspector (played by Nana Patekar) tries to explain the difference between ‘strength’ and ‘nuisance value’.
“I’ve shot down 22 of your best shooters, and I’m sitting right in front of you. That’s strength. And everything that’s going through your mind about how you’re going to use me – that’s the nuisance value,” he tells the man sitting across the table. Shortly after this, the cop sneakily uses a piece of broken glass and in one swift movement carves open his adversary’s neck.
This gloriously understated climax in Shimit Amin’s Ab Tak Chhappan burned slow and steady and raised the stakes with each passing minute, during its 10-minute running time. And it is this very sequence, which made me sit up and take notice of the reserved nature of Nana Patekar’s performance.
As an actor Nana Patekar is easy to mimic, with distinct mannerisms and a few famous monologues from his earlier movies like Krantiveer or Yeshwant. With his curly hair, dark complexion and rough delivery – he became a lead Bollywood actor conquering every unwritten rule about good looks, fairness and being likeable as a ‘hero’. He had a presence, which was surprisingly overwhelming. Take, for instance, a scene in his film Prahaar, where he is continuously talking to his commandos during a drill.
Verbosity has always been a major characteristic in Nana’s earlier films, where he will invariably have an outburst. And that’s where Ab Tak Chhappan’s Sadhu Agashe won over the other great characters portrayed by the actor. Shimit Amin gives us various glimpses of the ticking time bomb inside Sadhu Agashe at various stages in the film, but he never really allows it to explode. Even in the climax of a film, riddled with bullets and empty magazines, it is a piece of glass which settles scores. In stunning silence, that too. This silence is the movie’s biggest strength.
Following suit on Ram Gopal Varma’s Mumbai-noirs (which began with Satya), Ab Tak Chhappan was a worthy spin-off. Bringing us the cop’s perspective on things, the film was inspired by real-life encounter specialist Daya Nayak. Nana Patekar’s Sadhu Agashe is further elevated by supporting characters played by a bunch of pedigreed actors. We find out about Agashe’s love for sambhar with drumsticks when we witness him as a family man around his wife (Revathy), we see him face crossfire alongside a brother-like colleague (Kunal Vijaykar), we see him confront the jealous junior colleague (Yashpal Sharma) and then see him dole out the harsh realities of being a cop to his green-around-the-gills protege (a terrific Nakul Vaid).
Sadhu Agashe is no hero, he’s a pawn in the ‘system’ – something he openly acknowledges. His cellphone rings, he’s given information about his next target and his job is to point his gun in the direction of the ordered kill and shoot. And while this might sound eerily similar to that of a rogue ‘asset’ in Jason Bourne’s universe, Agashe compares his job to something else. “Our job is like that of a sex worker…after the last client leaves and before a new one gets in, we deck ourselves up and sit by the window,” he tells the protege, questioning the morality about some of the kills. Nana Patekar’s raw intensity is only allowed short bursts which builds up the sense of the overall doom, even more effectively.
In Ab Tak Chhappan, we saw a rare performance which optimised Nana Patekar to something unnervingly ‘realistic’. The only other film which is a close second is Prakash Jha’s Apaharan, which released a year later. As the actor turns 68 today, it wouldn’t hurt to look back at arguably his finest performance on screen and applaud the remarkable restraint. Its silences are something that will be difficult to mimic.