The film is about how a powerful man's son runs over pavement dwellers and their driver is expected to take the rap for the accident.

Revisiting Accident An 80s Kannada film thats still relevant for its sociopolitics
Flix Flix Flashback Saturday, July 06, 2019 - 11:15

Picture this: As soon as the initial titles are over, we cut to the view from the dashboard of a vehicle. A watchman opens the gate, and the car turns into a lane as music – a track seemingly inspired by Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive - starts playing.

The car drives through the residential areas and main roads of ‘80s Bengaluru until it reaches a busy market. The man at the wheel switches off the music and gestures his friend on the passenger seat to get on with it. The car is a white Buick convertible.

The friend gets down, walks up to a shop where he meets a man in all whites standing and smoking. He hands the man money in exchange for a packet and returns to the car. They start driving, and the music comes on again. This time it is Michael Jackson’s Beat it. The friend opens the packet and its Marijuana aka ganja. They stop at a signal. As soon as the signal turns green and they want to accelerate, a disabled man crosses the road. This irritates the young men in the car.

Next, we cut to a party where many young men and women are waiting for the ‘Soppu’ (Ganja) to arrive. The two men triumphantly announce their arrival at the party much to the glee of everyone.

Next, we cut to everyone dancing to popular English songs and enjoying their smoke and drink. Rahul – the friend in the car – is dancing with a girl and says, “Sex and smoke is a great combination, isn’t it?”. The woman retorts “How is your mother”.

After a few minutes of the visuals (marred by obvious reuse of shots) which remind one of the party visuals in the beginning of the Hindi classic Ardh Satya (1983), Deepak (the man at the wheel), Rahul and two other female friends of theirs decide to leave the party. While in the car, Rahul tries unsuccessfully to take advantage of the sozzled woman beside him and is remanded to the front seat. They drop off the two women and continue to Rahul’s home. Rahul gets down, notices a car in the driveway of his house, looks up and finds his mother at the bedroom window and goes back to Deepak and says he cannot go home now as his mother’s boyfriend is there.

They continue driving, reach an ashram where they pick up some more pot and also encounter a person who abuses them for being rich and looting the poor – perhaps, a young man driven by communist ideals. As Deepak and Rahul continue after buying some Mandrex at a chemist, the camera pans to many homeless people by the roadside sitting by the fires.

We cut to Rahul sitting on the car bonnet with a bottle in hand and Deepak at the wheel. A motorcyclist zooms by, provoking them to race, and they do. After a few minutes of racing, the motorcyclist offers them some tablets which Rahul readily accepts despite Deepak’s reluctance. All the drugs and the booze have done the trick. Deepak starts to lose control at the wheel and twice steers on to the footpath. Eventually, he loses complete control and runs over the homeless people sleeping on the pavement.

This 26-minute opening sequence is a fantastic example of visual story telling. And in Kannada cinema in 1984, this was a rarity. 

Accident was produced by Sanket - a company founded by Shankar Nag - and also directed by him. But the strength of this classic is the riveting story and screenplay by Vasant Mokashi. In one of his interviews, Mokashi said that Shankar Nag loved the script so much that he insisted on directing it. He had written the script after reading about a hit and run incident in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1980. The film, although realistic in treatment and sans any masala, was a big hit and won a National Award too.

The cast comprising Ashok Mandanna (Deepak), Srinivas Prabhu (Rahul), Ramesh Bhat (Rao), Anant Nag (Dharmadhikari), Arundhati Nag (Maya) and Ramanna (T S Nagbharana) – most of them Sanket regulars, complement the prowess of the script with solid performances.  

The movie’s politics is revealed in the beginning with few sharp dialogues indicting the elite of the city, for instance – the man who encounters a drunk Deepak who has come to buy Ganja from a bunch of Sadhus says – ‘ಬಂದ್ರು  ನೋಡು  ಶ್ರೀಮಂತ  ಸೂಳೆಮಕ್ಕಳು. ನಾವು ದುಡೀತೀವಿ,ಇವರು ತಿಂತಾರ! ತಿಂದು ಗಾಂಜಾ ಹೊಡಿತಾರಾ!’ (Here come the rich bastards. We work hard and these people eat! They eat and then smoke up!), and when Deepak and Rahul go to Deepak’s farmhouse to clean up after the accident, the servant asks what happened and Deepak curtly replies – ‘ರಸ್ತೆಯಲ್ಲಿ ನಿನ್ನಂಥ ಒಂದು ಕತ್ತೆ ಅಡ್ಡ ಬಂತು ‘(A donkey like you came in the way). 

Despite this, the plot does not the paint the world black and white. There are glimpses of grey in all the characters: The police officer Rao (Ramesh Bhat) when pushed back by higher-ups to give up the investigation, realises that it is in his best interest to back off lest his promotion is denied. Dharmadhikhari, the corrupt politician and Deepak’s father, played wonderfully by Anant Nag, shows an unexpected amount of respect and maturity in the way he treats Rahul’s mother Maya. Ravi the journalist, played by Shankar Nag, is initially shown as someone who befriends the cops to get his exclusive bytes although later on his character becomes the conscience keeper of the plot.

On the surface, the plot is simple – Dharmadhikari’s son Deepak kills 12 pavement dwellers while driving in a drugged state. The police make quick progress in the investigation as remnants found on the accident site identify the vehicle as a white imported car. After considerable political lobbying, Dharmadhikari has got a party ticket to contest the Vasanth Nagar bye-election and does not want his chances to be jeopardised by the accident. How this tussle between Dharmadhikhari, journalist Ravi, Deepak and Ramanna plays out forms the crux of the film.

The engaging screenplay and the nuanced treatment make it a layered storyline. For instance – we learn from Ramanna that he and his 12 fellow villagers had come from Siddnahalli in Bijapur district looking for work since their fields went dry due to the drought, in a rare reference to the arid north Karnataka region, the police who want to hide the actual number of people killed – a practice which is still prevalent in our country, the tension between Maya and Rahul due to her love affair, and the realistic portrayal of corruption in public life. The scene where Dharmadhikari asks his driver to show his loyalty and gratitude by confessing to the crime is almost prophetic as there have been many accidents with similar consequences since the movie released in late 1984.

Strangely, for a film which has no songs and has a score composed mostly of western pop and western classical music, Ilaiyaraaja was hired as the music director. The film also has significant references to Hollywood movies – when the editor asks Ravi who is his source for the news about Dharmadhikari’s involvement, Ravi replies “Deepthroat”, a direct reference to the Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford starrer All the President’s Men – an iconic movie about the famous Watergate scandal, and the scene where Ravi prepares his gun and walks up to Dharmadhikhari’s rally to assassinate him reminds us of the scene from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  Unlike De Niro’s Travis Bickle, Shankar Nag’s Ravi backs out from the crime in a moment of epiphany and moralises that violence never solves any problems, citing the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Indira Gandhi. It is worth recollecting that Indira Gandhi was assassinated on 31st October 1984, only months before Accident’s release. Her death influenced a change in the ending since the earlier ending was supposedly eerily similar to her assassination, and her name being included in the film. 

Although made 35 years ago, Accident is a movie which continues to be relevant; mostly because not much has changed in India’s political or justice system since then. The surprise ending of the film, albeit true, is troubling as it puts the onus of justice on a supernatural power (fate in this case). A movie worth revisiting to witness the tremendous potential of Shankar Nag as a director, and an absolutely riveting script bereft of clichés. Ashok Mandanna, the theatre veteran from Bengaluru, is at his best and makes us wonder why he did not play the lead in many more movies.

A low resolution version of the film is available on YouTube here

Basav Biradar is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in Bengaluru.

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