Direction: Prakash Jha
Actors: Priyanka Chopra, Prakash Jha, Manav Kaul
Almost 13 years ago, Prakash Jha made a film called GangaaJal, about beleaguered cops and powerful criminals in Bihar. In one scene, a frustrated police officer says: ‘Kutta ki zindagi hai sala. Kuch na kijiye toh public mare. Kuch keejeye toh sahib mare. Humse zyada izzat toh criminal ka hai. Itna sawaal jawab toh nahin hai.’
As it turns out, not much has changed. In Jai GangaaJal, the setting is Bankepur, which is a small town in Madhya Pradesh but might just as well be the Wild West. Characters with names like Babloo Pandey, Munna Mardani and Moti Pahalwan run the show. Land is usurped, women are raped and farmers crushed by debt hang themselves. Meanwhile, politicians and cops collude to amass mountains of money. Into this den of vipers arrives Abha Mathur, the first female superintendent of Bankepur. She has been brought in to serve the status quo. But she turns out to be brave, headstrong and honest. Of course, all hell breaks loose.
Politics has been an essential element of Prakash Jha’s cinema. He has contested elections himself and he has a keen understanding of how power games play out, especially in the hinterlands. So the trouble with Jai GangaaJal isn’t lack of authenticity. It’s repetition. Jha, who also writes and acts, isn’t giving us any new insights into these badlands. It’s the same old story of an upright officer against the system. The film also cannibalises the first film by retreading the same idea of mob justice — except here, instead of blinding criminals, the good folks of Bankepur are lynching them. Jai GangaaJal is relentlessly grim and only intermittently gripping.
The idea of a woman cop straightening out the goons is instantly sexy. Especially when the cop is played by Priyanka Chopra, who is convincing as the tough-talking Abha. It’s very satisfying to see her pummel the bad guys. But Abha is a one-note character. She doesn’t evolve, or exhibit a moment of vulnerability or fear. We mostly see her getting out of police jeeps and occasionally she gets to drop a killer line. There is one flat-out terrific moment in which the chief minister comes to her home to deliver a honey-coated warning and Abha fiercely pushes back.
But the best scenes are reserved for Jha himself. He makes his acting debut as deputy superintendent of police Bhola Nath Singh. Bhola is cheerfully corrupt, slimy when we first meet him, but the horrors of the men he serves slowly dawn upon him. The good news is that Jha can act — he’s fun to watch, especially in the first hour . But the character slowly starts to usurp the film, and not in a good way. Jai GangaaJal becomes about his redemption rather than Abha’s battle. Jha even constructs set-piece action sequences for himself.
Ultimately, Jai GangaaJal is too familiar to be engaging or essential. By the end, the characters and narrative start to blur with the dozens of similar films we’ve seen before and it becomes exhausting.