Starring Farhan Akhtar, Gippy Grewal, Diana Penty, Deepak Dobriyal, Rajesh Sharma, Inamulhaq
Directed by Ranjit Tiwari
Rating: **** ½ (4 and a half stars)
“You don’t get justice in the world, you only get good luck or bad luck,” a wise old librarian (pronounced ‘lee-bray-nian’ by his Lucknowi singer-son) quotes Orson Welles.
Our good luck, then, that we get a prison drama as taut and thrilling, relevant and resonant as Lucknow Central right in the middle of the year when things are looking bloody bleak in Bollywood.
Yes, there is hope. Lucknow Central is by far the most engaging thinking-man’s thriller of the year. Ballsy and brave, it penetrates the politics of prison life without relinquishing the right to engage us in a solid storytelling spree where a clever cat-and-mouse game is played out between a sadistic jailor (Ronit Roy, in top form) and a non-guilty prisoner (Farhan Akhtar) who is hellbent on getting his liberty at any cost.
The smartly thoughtfully written script (by Ranjit Tiwari, Aseem Arora) delves into the dynamics of freedom and comes up with a super-chic musical with wings that often allow vivid characters to fly higher than prison dramas generally do in India. Undoubtedly Lucknow Central is a prison-break drama on a par with Franklin Schaffener’s 1973 classic Papillon and certainly superior in its intellectual political and spiritual ramifications to the overrated Shawshank Redemption.
Redemption in Lucknow Central is a scarce commodity. This, its protagonist Kishen discovers as he journeys from a dreamer in the streets of a small town in UP, to a convict within 20 minutes of this gripping film’s playing-time.
Debutant director Ranjit Tiwari is an astoundingly selfassured storyteller. For a debutant he shows scant regard for commercial trappings. When was the last time we saw a prison drama without an item song? Or a film about injustice where the hero doesn’t get to raise his voice or lower his fists on corrupt jaws? Farhan Akhar’s Kishen is so soft-hearted and kind, we wonder how he will survive in prison for a crime he never committed.
Early on there is heart-stopping sequence of prison violence where Kishen is offered ‘protection’ by an imposing goon (Manav Vij, wordlessly sinister).
“I already have protection,” Kishen says pointing to his packet of Nirodh (on screen advertisement? There is more of that later for an online shopping brand).
Farhan plays Kishen as a dreamer-musician coping with a crisis beyond his comprehension or endurance but determined to slum it out even if it means breaking some laws. This is his bravest most soul-baring performance to date. Scenes of his breakdown in solitary confinement will remain with us long after the last episode of Prison Break is over.
The steel-willed screenplay provides Farhan with solid support, flinging forth one deftly written scene after another. Early on in one of the most authentic courtroom scenes I’ve seen in an Indian film since Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court and Vetrimaran’s Visaaranai the smirking Judge’s verdict on Kishen’s faith will shock you by its sheer casualness.
Let’s not beat around the bush, an indulgence that this film is assuredly not guilty of thanks to Charushree Roy’s editing which weaves in and out of the inmates’ lives with the expertise of a trapeze artiste. What starts off as Farhan’s story soon becomes the story of four other prison inmates each played by an actor who has rare insight into human nature and the conditions that impose themselves on a man’s free will rendering his actions unacceptable to society.
Talent like Rajesh Sharma, Imaanulhaq and Deepak Dobriyal never lets a film down. Here they have so much meat to chew on, it is feast of fury for them. As Farhan’s band-baja party they are seasoned troupers in a particularly inspired environment. And when Gippy Garewaljoins them as a Sardarji pining for his sweetheart singing soul-penetrating songs of separation, we know we are in this for keeps.
Then there Ravi Kissen a hoot as UP’s calm, cynical Chief Minister with a sense of humour who keeps reminding khaki-clad bureaucrats that the journey from officer to traffic police is just a signature way. God knows we need jokey politicians to get through present-day politics.
Lucknow Central sucks us into its human drama. It gives a flying hoot about commercial trappings, keeps the frames stark, bare and daunting. No concession is made to glamorous props. And if Diana Penty playing a kind of self-important activist prison-reformist that would otherwise seem satirical, happens to be naturally glamorous, it’s just too bad.
Cinematographer Tushar Kanti Ray looks for corners and crevices in the human heart to shoot feelings behind prison walls. When in the second-half the flexible narrative moves effortlessly into a philosophical mode we are prepared for the transition much in the same way that Kishen prepares himself for prison life.
An ongoing sense of inclusiveness runs through the film. We feel so much part of the goings-on that we cry, laugh, sing and dance with Kishen and his four band members. Their Kabootar song in the prison compound is arguably the best choreographed dance number seen in a Hindi film in recent times.
It looks so unrehearsed so spontaneous ….just like the film where the characters probably existed long before the writer and director thought about them. We just didn’t know. Or care.