Do you remember Gangaajal? I don’t. Something to do with the Bhagalpur blindings, yes – but it’s hard to recall more about something you’ve seen only once, when Gracy Singh was a pop-culture fixture. I didn’t know it needed a sequel. Were there more blindings, which were omitted in the earlier film? Did the Ajay Devgn character leave behind a daughter, who’s now all grown-up and ready for her own movie? As it turns out, Jai Gangaajal is a cheat. It calls itself a sequel but it carries over neither the actors nor the premise – and if the mere fact of a film being set in Bihar is enough, isn’t every Prakash Jha film a sequel? Jai Gangaajal, in that case, should really be called Apaharan 23.
I doubt that Jha even bothers to send over the screenplay to actors he wants for the stock parts. Why bother? He can just tell Rahul Bhat, “I want you to play Conscientious Activist.” He can tell Manav Kaul, “Will you be Villain With Local Colour and Political Connections?” He can tell Murli Sharma, “And you’ll play Colourful Sidekick.” The one change is that Idealistic Cop is now a woman (Abha Mathur, played by Priyanka Chopra), which lends a new dimension to scenes like the one in which a molester is thrashed in full view of the public. This isn’t just business. It’s also personal. In the continuum of female movie cops, Abha lies somewhere between Madhuri Dixit in Khalnayak and Rani Mukerji in Mardaani – she has the grit of the latter, the glamour of the former. (And if you remember Esha Gupta from Chakravyuh, you’ll know Jha likes his cops to look like pin-up models. With their form-fitting uniforms, you could argue that they are male fantasies of female cops.)
I wish I’d gotten to know more about Abha. Who is she? Where is she from? What does she do when not being a cop? Does she stalk the Facebook page of an ex? Chopra’s performance suffers as a consequence – she isn’t playing a character but a starchy archetype. But props to Jha for treating Abha like a man, a hero, and not subjecting her to “aurat hoke yeh majaal” situations. Everyone treats her like they would a male cop – the villain thinks of offing her, not doing the things other villains might think of doing to other female cops. We don’t get scenes where she has to prove herself – she hits the ground running. She even gets lines like “Keechad ko dhone ke liye saaf paani ki zaroorat hoti hai, gande paani ki nahin.” That’s when we realise that under the usual Jha trappings, we’re looking at a good, old-fashioned masala movie.
It’s not just that line, lip-smacking though it is. A parallel track in Jai Gangaajal is about Corrupt Cop (BN Singh, played by Jha himself) discovering there’s goodness in him after all. In other words, it’s the redemption of a sinner – one of the great masala tropes. Jha is surprisingly good. He needs to loosen up before the camera, but his close-ups are very effective. He’s got one of those great, weary faces that register inner turmoil even when absolutely still. That conscience thing, he has it down pat.
If only he were as good a filmmaker. Jai Gangaajal has a terrific conceit that draws on farmer suicides – hanging runs as a motif throughout. But the filmmaking is flabby and uninspired. In the first scene, we see an impoverished farmer being chased by goons on bikes who want his land. We cut to BN Singh’s home, where his wife has laid out a ton of gold jewellery for Lakshmi Puja. In case we still haven’t gotten the point, the camera turns to the other side of the room and takes note of a cupboard with stacks of currency notes. We’re meant to mourn the inequality, the injustice of it all – we mourn, instead, the rustiness of a filmmaker who has nothing but clichés left in his toolbox. Jha’s narration is depressingly straight. Scene after juicy scene – Singh’s change of heart, his admission of guilt and subsequent arrest, the Arjun-like scenario where no one will step forward as witness to a good man’s death, the Nayakan-like scenario where no one will step forward as witness to a bad man’s death – is presented like dry fact. I kept thinking what the Khakee-era Rajkumar Santoshi would have made of this material.
Jha does pull off one powerful stretch in which a little boy is the centrepiece of a public lynching. It must be something in the air. The recent Tamil hit Sethupathi, too, has a scene where a boy picks up a gun. As disturbing as these plot points are while viewed through a social prism, there’s no denying their visceral power as masala moments. Another interesting touch is the use of songs during the action sequences. But is that enough? There was a time Jha was the Bharathiraja of Bihar – his rooted, realistic depictions of these hinterlands redefined our perception of the State. But if he doesn’t fix his formulaic approach to “issue-based cinema,” he’s going to become the Bhandarkar of Bihar.
- Mardaani = see here
- Chakravyuh = see here
- “Keechad ko dhone ke liye saaf paani ki zaroorat hoti hai, gande paani ki nahin” = Dirt can only be washed away with clean water, not dirty water.
- aurat hoke yeh majaal = How dare you, you… woman
- Sethupathi = see here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.