Synopsis – Set in a jail in Lucknow, a group of prisoners form a music band.
My Take – Bollywood filmmakers have a become somewhat of an expert in making films about a man/woman who never gives up on his/her dreams even when circumstances are at their worst, and this film is no different in that context, but instead changes the setting from small town or a metropolitan city to the nitty-gritty life behind bars, while also depicting the devastating toll it takes on the life of the prisoners. Sharing similarities with last month’s critical & commercial disaster Qaidi Band, an YRF production, this film also portrays a set of prisoners who form a music band in jail, pick up life lessons and become best of friends in the process. Drawing inspiration from the real life story of Healing Hearts, a band formed in the real Lucknow Jail, this Ranjit Tiwari directed Musical/ Prison Break drama aims to pull you in emotionally and make you sing along with the music, while underscoring the system’s lack of empathy towards prisoners and the despicable state of jails in our country. Thankfully, the smartly written script by Aseem Arora and first time director Ranjeet Tiwari offers a myriad of emotions through various characters and bonding within and beyond the walls of jail and manages to keep you more or less engaged with its performances and pulsating ambiance of thrill, but if you disconnect, you might even end up snoozing because of its slack pace. Personally, I would call this film one of the better entertaining films of the year.
The story follows Kishen Mohan Girhotra (Farhan Akhtar), a small town man with big dreams of becoming a professional singer. Overnight, he becomes the victim of a corrupt and corruptible system when he is wrongfully implicated for a murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. This sudden jail-time derails his desire to become a recording artist and perform in front of large audiences of appreciative fans. After 18 months in Moradabad jail, he is transferred to Lucknow Central, an intensive prison under the watch of its tough warden Shrivastava (Ronit Roy). As soon as he enters his new home, Kishen gets pulled into prison politics and power play between Purushottam Madan Pandit (Rajesh Sharma) and his rival (Manav Vij). However in Lucknow Central, Kishen has a purpose. Under orders from the chief minister Pawan Singh Chaturvedi (Ravi Kishan), on to a NGO do-gooder who believes in prisoner reformation Gayatri Kashyap (Diana Penty), Kishen volunteers to put together an in-house band, with an aim compete with others from state jails in a jailhouse rock contest. Gradually, with Pandit’s help, he forms a band with Victor Chattopadhyaya (Deepak Dobriyal), Pandit himself, Dikkat Ansari (Inaamulhaq) and Parminder Singh (Gippy Grewal), a daunting bully. The dream is to start a band; but the plan is to escape — that’s Kishen’s sales pitch as he carefully recruits band-mates, not for their musical abilities but for skills that will facilitate a jail break. Even though the warden smells foul play & clearly shows his disapproval of such a band formation, he is constantly overruled by Gayatri and his superiors. Wrongly imprisoned protagonist, crushed aspirations, vicious inmate who wants to show his power, even more intimidating jailer who is out to get the protagonist, a wish to escape it all, a sympathizing well-wisher – the usual tropes of a prison film are all present here, what you are looking forward to then is something different in what links these predictable aspects together. While the first half is full of what you would expect, the only variety from other “prison” films is the intensity and type of torture of fist-fights between inmates. Based on a screenplay by Aseem Arora, the film walks down familiar corridors, but it manages to make well-trodden material seem far more interesting than it actually is. After a lumbering for an hour, it’s with the introduction of fellow inmates, that the story hits it strides, because until then you are trying to find a reason to sympathize with a flip-floppy character like Kishen. He’s a nice guy, but even though he is wrongly accused, he barely puts up a fight, accepting his fate rather benignly. Also the writers use quotes by Orson Welles as a kind of sweeping theme under which to brush away the judicial part of a prisoner’s life. Unlike Qaidi Band, these are not under trial prisoners embarking on a clumsy and poorly thought-out jailbreak. All but one of them is a lifer, guilty of their crime, and together they have meticulously mapped their escape. Director Tiwari hits his stride in the final hour of the film as the bands ready for the contest.
There is redemption and resignation, and a final speech, designed to evoke an emotional surge. The scene where Kishan experiences the immanent deathly circumstances that await him as a jailor gives him a tour of the premise, is impactful. Though commercial in approach, director Tiwari keeps his film unpretentious and thus, relatable. Delivering straightforward drama with touches of humor and the almost always present and affecting utilization of music and dance to bring an infusion of fun and emotional resonance to the proceedings, director Ranjit Tiwari’s newest feature effort shines on its well-written, uncomplicated, character-based execution while providing entertainment and relevant but not overbearing moral lessons that Bollywood films are so often adept at incorporating. The scenes that linger are the one involving the interactions between the five band mates, especially the moment when four of them get out on parole and realize that life outside prison is hardly any better. Inside jail, there is camaraderie, music, and the faint hope of recognition and respect. Additionally buoyed by a truly top notch and well-chosen cast, the narrative about how one man’s life turned upside-down ends up so greatly influencing, shaping, and transforming the lives of everyone he encounters is inspiring, even as his own mindset about what he’s been seeking as personal triumph and prosperity gets completely shaken up and redefined. It is all carried off in believable fashion as well, most likely aided by the fact this is based on true happenings, and maybe that’s what helps further carry the weight of the messages found here. Since the film is about band, it becomes really important to get the music right. You will certainly come back humming some songs back home. Meer e Karwaan is a gem written by Adheesh Verma and composed by Rochak Kohli. Another highlight is the utterly hilarious and totally engaging song Teen Kabootar as Kishan and his gang are put on the spot to perform by the ever suspicious Jailer. The opening song, Rangdaari crafted by Arjuna Harjaie and sung by Arijit Singh too is excellent. However, the film has its share of flaws; for example, the music could have been played a vital role in the film, but fails. Aside from the camaraderie between the men and a few action sequences, the film doesn’t really dwell on prisons and prisoners. In the end, it resorts to the same trope many Bollywood films are using these days – the characters make a video, it goes viral on social media and brings them instant fame and is the means towards solving their problems. If only social media did so much good in real life. A sloppy climax ends this sweet experience on a bitter note, turning out to be that unpalatable dessert that ruins a delectable experience. Despite its unwieldy length and underwhelming climax, the film is far superior to the usual Bollywood nonsense we get to see week after week, with better developed characters, a better narrative and score and welcome humor. Farhan Akhtar puts in a sincere effort to play a small-town, lower-middle-class musician, being a selective actor; he needs to be lauded for believing in this script. Diana Penty, despite an underwritten role, manages to be competent & delightful. Punjabi star Gippy Grewal acquits himself well, while Rajesh Sharma, Inaamulhaq and Deepak Dobriyal are predictably superb. Ronit Roy, once again, stuns with his performance. Despite playing a familiar role, he pulls off his act effortlessly. He owns his role and the audience will love him for that. Ravi Kishan is as always fun to watch as the progressive but caustic politician who taunts the prison officers remarking on how their uniform is the same shade of khaki as the traffic police. On the whole, ‘Lucknow Central’ is a solid watch with rough edges made worthwhile by an entertaining story-line & dependable cast.
Directed – Ranjit Tiwari
Rated – PG
Run Time – 133 minutes