By now a Madhur Bhandarkar film has come to signify a startling wealth of socio-cultural dynamics, not all of them done in depth but invariably done in shades that leave us stunned by their immediacy and resonance. The shades in Jail are not quite as flamboyant as what we saw in Bhandarkar’s last film Fashion or as acerbic as Page 3 or as lyrical as Chandni Bar. Jail is Bhandarkar’s most straight-forward social treatise to date. Gone are the symbols and hushed relevances that characterize the director’s narrative. Here he strips not just his hero but also his plot free of all adornment to give us a long disturbing sometimes traumatic dekko at life behind those stone walls. Parag Dixit’s journey from a carefree good-living person to a prisoner sucks us in from the word go. We enter the prison with Neil Nitin Mukesh, and leave with him. The young actor takes us through his hellish journey into debasement, torture and final self-recognition with a stinging sense of authenticity. His craving for girlfriend (Mugdha ‘Hardly There’ Godse)’s company almost becomes a throbbing character in the film. The dynamics of prison life are not alien to audiences. We’ve seen heroes and heroines being tortured prisons in films as varied in language and content as Lock Up and Gumraah. In the latter, the wrongly-incarcerated Sridevi finds a saviour in Sanjay Dutt. In Jail, Neil’s character slums it out, relying on more experienced inmates and his own instincts to survive. Does he emerge transformed from the ordeal? Neil has worked very hard on conveying an authentic body-language to his character’s passage into the damned. As his traumatic travel into the terror and trauma of a jailed white-collar dude passed into the real of the irreversible, the sense of pain becomes palpable.
There are some strong supporting performances particularly by Manoj Bajpai and to some extent Aarya Babbar, characters who create an aura of dread and foreboding. The mood of gloom is considerably brightened by Lata Mangeshkar’s evocative chant ‘Maula Sun Le Daata Sun Le’ which fill the polluted ambience with hope. There isn’t much to look forward to for the characters who live in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Jail. Quite often as a viewer you find yourself asking why we must suffer an ordeal that doesn’t really yield a participative lesson. In Madhur’s impressive oeuvre Jail won’t rank as high as Page 3 or Fashion. Too much of the plot pilots its proceedings into the province of the predictable. The prisoners’ behaviour goes from the sordid to the noble, depending on where the narrative pins them down .The mood swings don’t entertain. They baffle. You can’t fault Jail on any count except its grim airless ambience. The director has purposely made the goings-on claustrophobic, so that we are as suffocated by the prison walls as the protagonist. The prison is authentically constructed by Nitin Chandrakant Desai. And Kalpesh Bhandarkar’s lens tries to see the truth behind the prisoners’ dare without probing too hard. There are no incisive insights into life in jail. Yes, they all wear the correct cell numbers on their jail uniforms. But where are more tactful suggestions of squalidity besides furtive sex in the bathroom and homosexual suggestions everywhere? And why the hideous item song ‘Dil Kara Jai, Kuan Ma Kood Jaaon’? Oh well.