“Lucknow Central”… An okay-ish, overlong prison drama about a man who wants to front a band

Posted on September 19, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

In Ranjit Tiwari’s Lucknow Central, Farhan Akhtar plays a singer… again! The emphasis is unfair, I agree. The actor has played far more non-singing parts, but he does seem to have become the go-to actor when you want to make a movie about a band. Here, Akhtar plays Kishan, a dreamer in Moradabad, U.P., who’s trying to make it big in music. He defines “big” as a recording in Delhi, and when gently mocked that this is a big dream for a small-town guy, he says, “Sheher chote hote hain. Sapne nahin.” (The town may be small. The dreams aren’t.) The irony is that Kishan gets arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and finds that his big dreams will have to come true in a place even smaller than his town: the titular prison.

There’s one terrific conceit in Lucknow Central, which is a canny-enough film to operate within (reasonably) realistic bounds. This is not a fairy tale. Translation: there’s no Rock On!-like arena concert at the end. Thanks to an initiative by the Chief Minister (a very funny Ravi Kissen), an inter-jail music competition is organised. Or in the CM’s words, a “qaidiyon ka band ka program.” (Here, however, there is a fairy-tale element. The glitzy finale is staged like a Coldplay show.) Kishan wants to escape, but this competition offers an in. It’s the only way someone like him can live out his dream. What’s better? Freedom and an unremarkable life outside, filled with the frustration of an unfulfilled dream, or stardom from a jail cell?

But this dilemma isn’t explored very well (it’s externalised in dialogue, but not internalised in character) – so we don’t feel the things we’re meant to. What we’re left with, then, is a Lagaan-template underdog drama. Kishan builds a team (Rajesh Sharma, Deepak Dobriyal, Gippy Grewal, Inaamulhaq). Diana Penty plays the helper from within the system, an NGO worker named Gayatri. And Ronit Roy snarls as the villain, the jailer who will go to any lengths to scuttle the efforts of Kishan and Co. There’s perhaps a small in-joke here: the Ronit Roy character is seen reading an issue of Grihshobha, which is the magazine his character sneered at in Udaan. Future Ronit Roy biographer, you are welcome, and a cheque is fine, thank you very much.

Despite the generic plotting (first no one wants to join the band, and so forth; plus we have the jail clichés), Lucknow Central is watchable. It might have been more so if the director didn’t hold every beat as though it were being seen on screen for the very first time – the running time is two-and-a-half hours. The jailbreak sequence is tense (even if it’s artificial tension, more the function of editing/music than real writing) and we are shown enough humiliations – both inside the jail and outside – to root for these characters. The cast helps. The supporting actors do that thing where they amp up the one quality that gives them definition, and Akhtar is wonderfully sincere. He transforms himself into enough of a small-towner to keep us from dismissing this film as a Band Chahta Hai.

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