In a quaint town in Bhatinda, Punjab, a retired Indian army official (Naseeruddin Shah) wakes up every morning at 5:30 am to train his daughter in swimming. Father and daughter run, seldom speak, but clearly share a bond as the training sessions unfolds. She – beautiful, determined, and athletic – follows every target her father sets. Some days it’s 200 metres in under two minutes; some days it’s less. Each morning, she diligently practices in a local water body. Her aspiration, and her father’s aspiration, is for her to join the Indian Air Force.
Then, a training session becomes tragic when she nearly drowns. A few tests later, the two are greeted with the dreaded C-word. Advanced stage. When she also gets rejected by the Air Force she begins to battle her own demons out loud.
He does the same in silence.
Father and daughter make what they can of their last days. This opening scene of Irada sets the tone for the rest of the film – an unsettling two hours of the reality in Punjab, the cancer capital of India.
Directed by debutante Aparnaa Singh, Irada is a small-budget film with little to no publicity. The story begins with a father and daughter’s brush with cancer, and quickly moves to a series of bomb blasts at a chemical factory owned by Bhatinda’s richest tycoon. An NIA officer (Arshad Warsi) is recruited to investigate the case but stumbles upon something murkier and even more poisonous. The officer channels what he calls his “inner-Singham” and takes down these powerful, sketchy characters, otherwise known as politicians and businessmen.
Naseeruddin Shah as the retired army official Parabjeet Walia is methodical and calculating, but a softy at heart who can come up with timely poetic lines in a jiffy. He is a father who has just buried his daughter, and plots against the corporates responsible for her death. Shah’s role as the citizen who takes matters into his own hands is A Wednesday all over again. Only, he’s harder and more morose.
Arshad Warsi plays Arjun Misra, the NIA officer tasked with finding the culprit behind the bomb blasts at the PPF chemical factory. Nobody dies in the blast, but he faces something bigger – a cancer epidemic and the shrewd money-making business behind it. Beyond that of an investigator, Warsi’s character is like every one of us who is frustrated with the system and scoffs at the idea of “change”. He’s not cynical. He’s just a man who tries to follow orders and still do what his heart says, without getting into trouble.
Divya Dutta as CM Ramandeep Braitch is a character to watch out for. For once, even a shady female character is given a background story. Having usurped the role of the CM from her father, Ramandeep takes money from the rich and works as their puppet. She loves the importance she gets during the day just as much as she loves her glasses of Ballantines at night. She swears, snarls, and manages to have the last laugh in a number of scenes with ease. Yet, in private, we see a woman who is insecure. A woman who silently tears up whenever she’s hit by taunts from her mother.
Sagarika Ghatge of Chak De India fame plays a journalist who wants to expose the truth. After her boyfriend, an RTI activist, is killed, she takes it upon herself to investigate. Death threats and acid attack attempts don’t deter her. She’s brave, and confident that the truth will prevail. It’s a pity that Ghatge has such little screen time because in every scene she has, she makes the role her own without pandering to clichés.
Irada has those moments when the characters and the story become real without being preachy. A scene where Warsi’s character takes a ‘Cancer Train’ and encounters patients at different stages of cancer, even as insurance agents pace around like hawkers – it’s not a tear-jerking scene, but it leaves you with a lump in your throat.
Especially when you realise that such a train actually exists somewhere in Punjab.
At times, the film bears an uncanny resemblance to the Hollywood film Erin Brockovich (2000) starring Julia Roberts. But this is unintentional, given that there are at least 90 cancer patients for every 1,00,000 people in Punjab (according to a 2013 survey by the Punjab government). And frequent arsenic and uranium poisoning in the state make it one of the highest cancer-breeding states in the country. The film brings out all this without shoving facts in our face.
It makes us think about the environment, and wonder just how poisonous these chemicals are. It does this without getting too technical, by hitting all the right notes even as it explains the basics of chemistry and cancer to laypersons.
For the most part, first-time filmmaker Singh manages to tell the story of Punjab’s relationship with cancer through multiple perspectives. Still, there are times when it’s too many perspectives, too many stories, and too little time to tell them in. The film is pacy but a tighter screenplay would have made it solid.
However, backed with terrific actors and a subject that Bollywood usually chooses not to tread, Singh’s Irada is a stellar entry into the sparsely populated genre of eco-thrillers in cinema. And it never looks like a documentary.
The Irada review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.