Retro Review: Jail (2009)

1 Star (out of 4)

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It’s natural to have sympathy for a person unjustly accused of a crime. Jail assumes that sympathy is all an audience requires in order to identify with the movie’s hero. That’s not the case.

Jail‘s protagonist is Parag (Neil Nitin Mukesh). Soon after celebrating a promotion with his flight attendant girlfriend, Mansi (Mugdha Godse), Parag is pulled over by the cops while driving with his roommate. The roommate pulls a gun on the cops and is shot while fleeing the scene. His backpack contains two kilos of cocaine.

The police assume that Parag is a part of the drug dealing operation and throw him in jail. A judge convicts Parag based on circumstantial evidence. When the comatose roommate dies, so do Parag’s hopes of having his name cleared.

Most people, if falsely accused of a serious crime, would protest their innocence vigorously. Not Parag. He sits at the police station stunned, occasionally stuttering about his confusion. He remains similarly silent throughout his imprisonment. Fellow inmates have one-sided conversations with him. Even a visit from his mother elicits only a mumbled, “Ma.”

Despite his silence, Parag’s fellow inmates sense that he’s a good guy who doesn’t belong in prison. How they can tell from his mute indifference, I’m not sure. Someone must have told them that they were in a movie and that he was the protagonist. Parag himself doesn’t do anything to encourage their friendship or respect.

On one of the rare occasions when Parag actually does something, there’s nothing heroic about his actions. A jerk named Joe buys his early release and brags about it on his way out of prison. Parag attacks him, not because Joe’s being cruel to the other inmates, but because Parag thinks he should be the one getting out instead of Joe.

At the end of the movie, the producers include a note about the thousands of people imprisoned without charges in Indian jails. Reflective of that stance, the prisoners in the movie are nicer than the guards, who are themselves admit to being hampered by bureaucracy. The blame for the system’s injustice is laid on zealous police investigators, lazy judges and greedy defense attorneys.

The conditions of the jail, if realistic, are disturbingly primitive. Dozens of prisoners share one large cell, sleeping on blankets on a dirt floor. There are semi-private toilets and a water trough for bathing and washing clothes. Critics who find American prisons too luxurious would be impressed. The stark setting illustrates how easily it would be to lose a share of one’s humanity in such a place.

But the movie’s success rests ultimately on Mukesh’s performance as Parag, who doesn’t grow throughout the film. It’s hard to get to know a character who’s so unresponsive. Apart from a few breakdowns, he never seems in danger of losing his humanity, in part because his fellow inmates won’t let him. Why they are so concerned with saving him, I’m not sure.

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