Director Prakash Jha is to social issues what Madhur Bhanadarkar is, of late, to highfalutin society issues. Both directors have developed their oeuvre template, and it seems to have worked, to a certain extent, for both of them. There is another doppelganger effect in both their efforts – they’re both very predictable, and you can see, despite your best efforts not to, the plot a mile off from where you sit in the cinema hall.
With this template in your mind, step in Director Jha’s Jai GangaaJal, that takes place in Bankipur district, Bihar, and Jha (who also wrote the story and screenplay) pushes you right into the heat and dust of oppression and suppression. There are the regular keelhauled citizens, ranging from the lower middle class to the farmers, a section of who are now forced to sell their land for the Samanta power project. There’s a bazaar that’s uprooted and the demotic desperation is caused by the local MLA, Babloo Yadav (Manav Kaul), his younger brother Dabloo Yadav (Ninad Kamath), and just about the entire police force, led by the corrupt and loyal-to-Yadavs Circle Babu/Bhola Nath Singh (director Prakash Jha himself.) Add to this mix local henchmen owned by the Yadav brothers, headlined by the oxymoronically named Munna Mardani (Murli Sharma), a very polished protester and rabble-rouser played by Rahul Bhat, a farmer’s family refusing to give up their land, and you pretty much have the set up ready for the savior to make an entry.
Welcome, then, to SP Abha Mathur (Priyanka Chopra) who strides into this frontispiece of mayhem and trouble and you know what’ll happen next, and to whom. You know that Ms. Mathur will take on the system and its goons, despite having gotten the posting because of the Chief Minister (played by Kiran Karmarkar) and his ostensible benevolent family connection. You’d think that the movie belongs to Priyanka’s Abha Mathur, and for some time it almost seems like it does. But director Jha apparently wasn’t planning on capturing the tribulations of Bankipur and Lakhisarai districts from behind the camera. It almost seems that in his mind, he wanted a male foil for Ms. Mathur, and he takes up this onerous mantle upon himself. With the result that Jha’s B.N. Singh is up there onscreen in almost every frame. Which in itself, is not a bad thing.
As a corrupt officer who handles his superiors, the press, the Bankipur folks, and the murderous Yadavs with equanimity and cardamom pods, Prakash Jha is actually very good. He doesn’t overreach his boundaries of acting skills, keeps himself in check, delivering dialogues with an inflection of Nana Patekar on Prozac. Jha has no qualms in partaking the meat of the movie, and he stabs at his role with a mixture of controlled bravado and simmering élan. His scenes with Priyanka Chopra, especially in the first half, are a lot of fun – she the disbelieving-how-rotten-Singh-is officer, he the half-mocking, half-simpering, but never- stepping- out- of- line subordinate. As his role transfers from an enjoyable corrupt shade to a conscience stricken pail of pang, things get a little heavy for Jha the actor to handle. But he doesn’t give up, giving himself an almost laughable slow-motion climactic rope shot as well.
The lineup of villainous mugs is an impressive one in Jai GangaaJal, and most of them don’t disappoint. Murli Sharma is his usual effective, angry self, and fortunately he doesn’t overdo his effeminate act. Manav Kaul is smoothly dangerous as the local MLA, while NInad Kamath is simply superb as the bacchant younger brother. Kiran Karmarkar as the Chief Minister with evil designs has a predictable character path too, but he does it well – and also serves his guests with alien-looking cold drinks. In one scene, he and Yadav Sr. seem to be sipping the childhood-terror-at-birthday-parties concoction, Rooh Afza; in another, the head of Samanta power project and Karmarkar are holding glasses of what can only be optimistically described as Kryptonite liquid – if I was Samanta, that would have been reason enough to abandon the project and run, Abha Mathur or no Abha Mathur.
In her role as the gutsy IPS officer, Priyanka Chopra is absolutely brilliant. Her act is mind bogglingly sharp and well-cut, as is her body language. In the scene where she first picks up the police baton from the jeep and then strides towards a goon beating an old man and harassing his daughter, her expressions are a treat to watch. She turns to her seat in the jeep, picks up the stick, and then walks towards the scene. And then, when she lets the lathi go at the goon, you’re too transfixed to even hoot or whistle, she’s so good. And yet in another scene, where her team’s ambushed and kerosene bombed, she faces the bricks and the fuel-bats with a concentration and intensity so convincing, you want her transferred to your locality with immediate effect. And, of course, in her scenes with Jha, her eyes are filled with knowing scorn and irritation, and you can’t take your eyes off her.
Composers Salim-Suleiman deliver a music score that’s thankfully relegated to the background, or as moving props in the action, so there’s no plot-resistance because of the songs. Their background score is also pretty peppy and in it, so that’s good news.
In Jai GangaaJal, director Jha also adds a nice cinematic twist to the spate of farmer suicides, even as he takes a look at the politician-builder mafia. Predictable and true-to-template this is, but also disturbing. Amidst the true-to-life scenario of lawlessness and dis- (and the fictitious miss Mathur) order, what does it say of our frustration as an audience, as it does of the real-life folks, when public lynching seems to be the only solution that’s both effective and entertaining?