“Jazbaa”… Irrfan kills it in a just-about-watchable pulp thriller

Posted on October 11, 2015


Spoilers ahead…

Sanjay Gupta’s Jazbaa is the mature actor’s answer to those star-son launch pads that tell us this boy can dance and ride a horse and isn’t allergic to glycerine. This is about Aishwarya Rai Bachchan announcing she’s back. She’s first seen in a track suit, stretching and running and generally posing against the Mumbai skyline. The message is clear. The post-baby fat that she was cruelly criticised for – it’s all gone. She’s saying: Show me another 41-year-old who looks like THIS! She’s saying she’s worth it. It’s an interesting time we are in. Actresses who are no longer young enough to play arm candy to older heroes are still figuring in leading roles. I’m also thinking of Rani Mukerji and Mardaani. In the 1980s, they may have ended up playing demure wives and doting bhabhis, but those roles no longer exist and these heroines are saying they can be the hero. For a while, Aishwarya’s character – a top lawyer named Anuradha Verma – seems really interesting. She knows that there’s no money in defending the innocent. “Jo beqasoor hain, woh mera fees afford nahin kar sakte.” That’s an amazingly matter-of-fact admission from a leading lady, and Jazbaa is about how this philosophy comes to bite her in the behind. When her daughter (Sara Arjun, last seen in the lovely Tamil film Saivam) is kidnapped, she’s forced to defend a man whose guilt is in little doubt. Not only is he a murderer, he’s a rapist too – he’s every mother’s nightmare, and Anuradha Verma, if she wants her daughter back, has to somehow overlook the fact that she has to free someone who robbed another mother of her daughter.

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Jazbaa is based on a South Korean thriller named Seven Days, and I wonder if this subtext was worked in more convincingly in that film – because after this set-up, after hinting at Anuradha’s complicity in a legal system that has come to favour those with money and power, Gupta backs off. I suppose you cannot have a star vehicle that screams, You deserve this, bitch! But in that case, why bother? Why not simply enshrine Anuradha Verma as the epitome of motherhood, as the rest of the film does? In court, we are pointedly shown that Anuradha wears high heels, but look at her replace them with sneakers as she takes part in a sports meet at her daughter’s school. She’s the modern Mother India, which may be why Gupta opens his film with a shot of the tricolour. (Too bad he isn’t as reverent towards other mothers, like the now-ubiquitous gau mata – a character is shown tucking unapologetically into a steak dinner.)

Aishwarya is the perfect actress for a Jodhaa Akbar, where her face does the talking. Here, she’s asked to resort to her voice, and that’s a mistake. She cannot do inflections. Every line seems to have been read off a teleprompter. She’s cold, distant. As if recognising this, Gupta gives her an overblown scene where she catches a glimpse of her daughter in the kidnapper’s car – she runs behind it and screams and falls and pounds the earth and causes sand to rise in little slow-motion clouds. In comparison, Shabana Azmi, who plays the mother of the murdered girl, needs just one look lasting about two seconds to clue us in to her anguish. Having someone like Shabana Azmi share frames with Aishwarya is a little like stumbling into someone’s bookshelf where a Chetan Bhagat rests against a David Foster Wallace – but the film would be unwatchable otherwise. At least this way, we get glimpses of lived-in characters. Jackie Shroff has reached a stage where his mere profile, in a close-up, suggests something. He speaks in a growl that’s pitched a couple of notches below his usual speaking voice, and we instantly know what kind of scum this politician is. And Chandan Roy Sanyal has great fun as the accused, playing the character as nonsensically as the material deserves demands. This isn’t simple hamming. Orwell could have made a farm out of it.

The first half lurches unconvincingly from scene to scene, but slowly, the film settles into a zone that’s as lurid as the neon-green light Gupta drenches his frames in. I especially enjoyed the last half hour – it’s sleazy pulp heaven. After a generally bleak view of courtrooms in films like Court and Talvar, it’s fun to see the place crackling with Perry Mason energy. I wish the film had had more of Irrfan Khan though. He plays Anuradha’s friend Yohan, but on the side, he seems to be auditioning for the lead role in a Salim-Javed script. There were hints of the masala hero inside him in Haider, where he made a smashing entrance. Then Talvar saw him as a starry investigator. Here, he turns full-blown star. He gets superb Kamlesh Pandey lines to chew on, and he spits them out with unbelievable flair. Main khud langar ki line mein khada hoon, tere liye daawat kahaan se laaoonga? Here’s another: Neend mashooqa ki tarah hoti hai. Waqt na do to rooth ke chali jaati hai. At one point, the film morphs into a music video. We just see Irrfan drinking, putting a face to these amazing lyrics: Jaane tere shehar ka kya iraada hai / Aasmaan kum, parindey zyada hain. The world-weariness he channels here, the casual way he tosses off those florid declamations (perfectly walking the prose-poetry tightrope) made me think of Amitabh Bachchan, who was an equally unconventional-looking (and tall) leading man. None of today’s heroes can pull these lines off, and you don’t have to recall Imran Khan in the ill-fated Once Upon Ay Time In Mumbai Dobaara! to underline the point. How strange that the strongest links to our older commercial cinema seem to lie in the “art film” actors of today. I kept imagining Irrfan Khan’s hero here pitted against Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s gloriously entertaining villain in Kick. It would be the masala blockbuster of 1975.


  • jazbaa = emotion/passion
  • Mardaani = see here
  • bhabhi = see here
  • Jo beqasoor hain, woh mera fees afford nahin kar sakte = the innocent can’t afford my fees
  • Saivam = see here
  • Seven Days = see here
  • gau mata = er, Mother Cow
  • Jodhaa Akbar = see here
  • Court = see here
  • Talvar = see here
  • Haider = see here
  • Main khud langar ki line mein khada hoon, tere liye daawat kahaan se laaoonga? =
  • Neend mashooqa ki tarah hoti hai. Waqt na do to rooth ke chali jaati hai = 
  • Jaane tere shehar ka kya iraada hai / Aasmaan kum, parindey zyada hain = 
  • Once Upon Ay Time In Mumbai Dobaara! = see here
  • Kick = see here

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi