“Jolly LLB 2.”… Merely okay as courtroom drama, but a vivid look at Hindu-Muslim dynamics

Posted on February 12, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

What happens when you move from Arshad Warsi to Akshay Kumar? You get the scene where the lawyer nicknamed Jolly (he’s not the same character though; Warsi’s Jolly was Jagdish Tyagi, Akshay’s version is Jagdishwar Mishra) is on a boat on the Ganges. He jumps into the water. This decision isn’t about Jolly feeling like a swim, or Jolly wanting to wash away his sins. It’s about Akshay needing to promote his brands. As he takes his shirt off, the camera moves closer to his chest, so we see the Dollar Bigboss sign on his premium innerwear. When you get a star, you also get the products he endorses.

Subhash Kapoor’s sequel, Jolly LLB 2, follows pretty much the same arc. This Jolly, too, is a small-time laywer, an essentially good-hearted man. But he isn’t averse to bending the rules when faced with the prospect of a fat sum of cash. Or even a thin sum. The film opens with Jolly helping students cheat in an English exam, as parents mill about outside the classroom, sipping tea and munching on roasted corn. Kapoor has a wonderful eye for the “masala touch.” This is the kind of broad comedy scene our more Westernised filmmakers cannot pull off, but amidst the broadness, there’s finesse in the staging, the setting. The crowds don’t look like extras hired for a day. They look real. There’s another fantastic masala moment later on, in a court, when the defence lawyer and the judge face-off in a dharna. The payoff – the judge’s reason for participating in this drama – is brilliant. This folksiness, if you will, is a flavour throughout the film.

If you have to replace Warsi with a star, Akshay is probably the best bet. His wattage isn’t as bright as that of, say, the Khans. He’s good with drama, and he’s learnt to be funny without appearing forced – but he doesn’t overpower a role, because his star signature isn’t that distinctive. He blends into the folksiness. When you see Aamir Khan on a scooter in a village in Dangal, one part of you says, “Oh look, it’s Aamir Khan on a scooter.” That doesn’t happen with Akshay. He just looks like a man from these parts, with paan-stained teeth and the dream of opening his own practice.

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As in the earlier film, Jolly realises his mistake and begins to fight for justice, but the sequel digs deeper. The earlier film was reminiscent of the Salman Khan case (rich, drunk man mows down pavement dwellers), and it was simply about haves and have-nots. The minor-scale ambition suited Warsi, who is best known for his small-time cads – those lovable rogues he played in Ishqiya and the Munnabhai movies. Akshay, on the other hand, has, over time, become the pole on which the national flag flutters. Jolly LLB 2, thus, is about something we see in the scene where Jolly meets Hina (Sayani Gupta, very moving in a brief role). She’s waiting to meet his bigboss. At the end of the conversation, she says adaab. He says Ram Ram. Jolly LLB 2 is about Hindus and Muslims. It may be no accident the film is set in Lucknow, a renowned centre of Muslim culture in a state that’s also home to Kashi.

I cannot recall another recent Hindi film that’s such a dense (and sly) interweaving of Hindu-Muslim characters and cultures. And stereotypes. An elderly Muslim – Jolly’s employer, Rizvi saab – is a lover of paan. We think he’s one of those debauched remnants of the Nawabi era, and he has nothing but contempt for Jolly – but later, he supports Jolly in his fight. Here’s another stereotype: a Kashmiri named Iqbal Qadri is a jehadi. But the film says Hindus aren’t blameless either. A Hindu cop (Kumud Mishra) – with the resplendently Hindu name of Suryaveer – guns down, in a fake encounter, an innocent named Iqbal Qasim (Manav Kaul).

Then there’s the lawyer Pramod Mathur (a terrific Annu Kapoor, in the Boman Irani role of Goliath to Jolly’s David), to whom truth and justice matter less than money. Annu Kapoor gets to chew on marvellous masala lines. “Pepsi aur Pramod apne formula bataate nahin.” Even better: “Yeh Lucknow hai. Yahan chikan khaya bhi jaata hai, pehnaaya bhi jaata hai.” But he also becomes a stand-in for fear-mongering when he declares, “We are in a state of war.” In this film’s loaded milieu, that’s a very loaded statement. Why, Jolly himself is no saint! There’s the sense with this Jolly (which wasn’t there with the Warsi character) of not just of growing a conscience but atoning for a sin – the repercussions of Jolly’s casual greed are much greater.

Jolly LLB 2 sets up a Hindu-versus-Muslim case – Suryaveer is accused of killing Iqbal Qasim – and yet, it tells us that religions aren’t good or evil, only the practitioners, the people, are. There are good Hindus like Jolly’s principled father. There are good Muslims too. The Kashmiri jehadi is balanced out by conscientious Kashmiri cops named Fahim Butt and Gul Mohammad. If a Hindu family has suffered loss, a Muslim family has too. The camera keeps reminding us that the courtroom is filled with Hindus and Muslims.

But Kapoor is no didact. He finds innovative and entertaining ways to underline the versus: a local cricket match plays out between two women’s teams named Ghunghat XI and Burqa XI. One of Kapoor’s cheekiest touches is to have the jehadi disguised as a Brahmin priest, whose name made me laugh out loud: Ram Krishna Saraswat. There cannot be a godlier name than that.

And look at how Jolly’s Hindu household is portrayed. I wish his wife Pushpa (Huma Qureshi) had been fleshed out better, but this is one of the more interesting marriages, showcasing a number of versus. There’s the public face of this Brahmin family versus what they do at home. During a key courtroom scene, Jolly whips out his sacred thread – it attests to his upbringing as a Brahmin. But at home, he loops the thread around his ear while he downs his “Angrezi sharaab.” He pours a peg for Pushpa too, though she prefers to drink straight from the bottle. Then there’s the Indian versus the Western. Pushpa wants (and gets) Gucci designer wear, but when her father-in-law enters the room, she grabs a dupatta and covers her head. There’s also male versus female role-playing. Jolly makes rotis for his wife, takes their son (a wonderfully chubby, happy-looking child) to the bathroom, while Pushpa gets the film’s sole action scene, where she beats up (with her handbag) someone with a gun. Suddenly, you realise Pushpa’s isn’t that anaemic a character. In her own small way, she’s fighting the cause of how our heroines are represented, what they can do on screen.

In comparison, the writing around the case is weak. It’s filled with perfunctory investigation, and tired movie staples like the false witness and the last-minute reveal. Also, the Jolly from the scene where he was helping students cheat in their exam seemed more street-smart, more prone to unconventional methods. As the case drags on, his methods are disappointingly ordinary (and random). But I didn’t mind, as there’s so much going on around the case, and with so much flavour – a wedding night with handcuffs (but not in the way you think), or a judge who makes his entry dancing to a Shandaar song.

This judge, Sundarlal Tripathi, is played by a magnificent Saurabh Shukla. Kapoor lavishes his best touches on this character. Tripathi does stretches in court. He speaks into a mobile phone in front of a sign that says you cannot use your mobile phone in court. He waters the little plant beside his gavel even as he ticks off Jolly. And then we see that the Shandaar song was not just throwaway comedy, something to make us laugh at just that moment. Tripathi is an Alia Bhatt fan. He’s seen Student of the Year 11 times.  The walls of his chamber have her pictures. And there’s more. The Shandaar song is what he’ll be dancing to at his daughter’s wedding. What appeared a casual sight gag becomes a gift that keeps on colouring the character.

But this judge isn’t just a joker. As with everything else in Jolly LLB  2, there’s another side, a serious side. His speech at the end brought forth a tear. It’s a reminder that messages in movies can be moving if the screenplay builds up to them, instead of just thrusting them down the throat as a finger-wagging lecture. And what to make of the fact that this judge seems to recall Jolly from the earlier film, even though this Jolly is an entirely different character? I think he’s just doing what we do. We see this as a sequel even though we know it’s not quite one. It’s a good idea: a legal-drama franchise, powered by Saurabh Shukla’s exasperated sighs.

KEY:

  • Jolly LLB = see here
  • dharna = a sit-down protest
  • Dangal = see here
  • paan = betel leaves prepared and used as a stimulant (I got this from… The Oxford Dictionary!!)
  • Ishqiya = see here
  • Munnabhai movies = see here
  • adaab = a Muslim salutation
  • Ram Ram = a Hindu salutation
  • jehadi = an Islamic militant
  • “Pepsi aur Pramod apne formula bataate nahin.” = Neither Pepsi nor Pramod will reveal their secret formula.
  • Yeh Lucknow hai. Yahan chikan khaya bhi jaata hai, pehnaaya bhi jaata hai.” = This is Lucknow. We eat chicken. We also wear chikan.
  • Angrezi sharaab” = Imported liquor
  • roti = see here
  • Shandaar = see here
  • Student of the Year = see here

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi