JAI GANGAAJAL. Director: Prakash Jha. Players: Priyanka Chopra, Prakash Jha, Manav Kaul, Ninad Kamat, Rahul Bhat, Murli Sharma. Hindi with Eng. sub-tit. Theatrical release (Play Entertainment)
Jha’s original Gangaajal (2003) was a loose, bloody re-telling of a real-life news story from the late 1970s. It waved a terrific corruption-themed red flag featuring a solid cast that included Ajay Devgan, Gracy Singh and Ayub Khan. More than a decade later, Jha returns with Jai Gangaajal, which wants to not only pose as an evocative titular progeny but also would be quite content tapping into even one-half of the critical or box office creds of the original. The powerful thrust behind “Gangaajal” in the movie title, however, dissipated even before the original movie was released. Jai Gangaajal, warts and all, mind you, and certainly not a bad offering, may have been a better movie had it been called something else.
Borrowing major story line chapters from the original movie, the arrival of the new anti-corruption cop Abha Mathur (Chopra) in a rural north Indian constabulary is seen by the local criminal overlords as a mere nuisance that will surely last only until they can pull the right strings to get Inspector Abha, a rookie, transferred out. Not so fast. For one, there is a huge election—rigged— coming up, which adds a serious wrinkle to the time-table for any string-pulling shenanigans the local goons can muster. For another, Inspector Abha—who raises eye brows not only for her tough stance but also because she is a woman calling the shots in a shallow pond filled with downwardly mobile men—may just prove to be a much tougher foe than any of the low life alpha males are expecting.
Prakash Jha has a solid reputation for crime thrillers that sometimes follow realpolitik, socially charged news stories. Often set in his native Bihar state, Jha’s movies—from Damul (about indentured laborers), Mrityudand (misogyny), Aarakshan (affirmative action) to Satyagraha (corruption)—may register highly reactive in their treatment of those topics. Despite that trend, because some of Jha’s works become box office and critical hits, they have more or less become a fictionalized big screen chronicle of those larger conversations.
The onscreen etymology of the title is sad. Gangaajal—literally “water from the Ganges” or Hindu holy water—is a sick dystopian allusion to a horrifying practice from the 1970s when some real life policemen in Bihar, which lies along the Ganges, in hopes of discouraging convicted repeat offenders, would pour acid into the eyes of the about-to-be-released ex-cons to permanently blind them. A new term was thus added to criminal folklore.
The most unusual aspect of Jai Gangaajal is Jha directing himself in the role of Inspector Abha’s wayward lieutenant B. N. Singh. The corruption in police ranks, for which Singh is often the only witness, follows a strict regimen of tit for tat and racketeering on a grand scale and Jha does a surprisingly credible job in that role. Kaul as Babloo Pandey, the local elected official and Kamat as Babloo’s brother, along with Sharma as cross-dressing mafia enforcer Munna Mardani lend hands in rounding out a cast that is often rife with stereotypes.
The decidedly non-original script hurt. Jai Gangaajal is not as good at examining political graft as Priyadarshan’s Aakrosh (2010), Jha’s own original Gangaajal or anything from Shyam Benegal in the 1970s. The only fuel to tolerate a story that drags at times is Chopra. On the one hand, Chopra is just too beautiful—former Ms. World, super model and recent winner in the U.S. of the popular People’s Choice Award for Best Actress in New TV Series for her lead role in ABC’s hit show Quantico—to be found anywhere within a few hundred miles of a penthouse or a runway.
Her Inspect Abha is determined to wipe out the rot she sees around her. She has no personal life to speak of and only a mother who is increasingly afraid for her daughter’s safety after Abha entangles with the local criminal hyenas. A strong woman in a forceful cop role—think Rani Mukherjee in Mardani (2014) or Tabu in Dhrishyam (2015)—is always welcome. Chopra, however, is not the problem here. Jai Gangaajal simply melts at first contact with script-writing acid.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.