Viewed from afar, Prakash Jha’s Jai GangaaJal is yet another entry in the morally-upright-Bihar-cop-against-the-system subgenre. Abha Mathur (Priyanka Chopra) is appointed SP of Bankipur, a district in Bihar. Her mission is to keep a lid on the law and order situation there, which puts her on a collision course with crooked local MLA Bablu Pandey (Manav Kaul), who has the local police under his thumb and big business in his pocket. So far, so Shool (or GangaaJal, to which this is a sequel in spirit), but Jai GangaaJal—when it can tear itself away from crowd-pleasing theatrics—tells its story with a welcome amount of detail.

This is hardly surprising. Jha has been making movies about Bihar for decades and he can shade in his small-town environments and characters in a way that most Bollywood directors aren’t able to. Amid all the kidnappings, murders and land grabs that one expects from a Bihar crime film, there are intriguing little touches that stand out, like the way people say “suicide" when they mean death by hanging (this might be the first film which has someone talk about “murder by suicide").

Jha sets his film (which he’s also written) in an environment that’s overwhelmingly male. Mathur is repeatedly called “Madam Sir", or sometimes just “Sir", by her juniors. One’s masculinity coming under question is treated as the worst thing that could befall someone. When Mathur beats up her first criminal in public, an officer tells her, “Aaj aap humein mard bana diye hain (Today you’ve made us men)." Mathur resorts to a similar jibe, telling Pandey that a “namard" like him cannot stain the uniform. Several times, the word “napunsak" (impotent) is mentioned. Even the (apparently) trans henchman, played by Murli Sharma, is named Munna Mardaani.

Local colour will only get you so far, and Jha is canny enough to know that the audience is there to see Chopra hand out beatings and sermons, sometimes all at once. Herein lies the problem: Most of Jai GangaaJal’s 150-minute running time is taken up by hissing villains and virtuous poor folk and a morally upright protagonist whose private (or inner) life we’re rarely privy to. This kind of film-making seems more and more outdated in an era when few venerate the police and even mainstream cinema allows for some amount of moral ambiguity. Though Jha tries to address this by casting himself as a corrupt circle officer, he nevertheless gives himself a long redemption arc. By the end, nearly all the cops are good, and all the politicians bad.

Chopra plays the tough but sensible Mathur with adequate determination, but the film presents her more as an ideal than a living, breathing character (contrast this to how Shool used its protagonist’s personal life to illuminate his behaviour). This inability to introduce nuance into the storytelling is the film’s undoing. This is a film that’s nominally against mob justice, but nevertheless includes a scene in which a small child is allowed to commit a dragged-out murder while a crowd of people cheer him on. Jha’s cinema has always been about broad strokes for simple folk, and Jai GangaaJal is no exception.

Jai Gangaajal released in theatres on Friday

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