Who exactly is the protagonist in Jai Gangaajal (“Hail Holy Waters“)? International superstar Priyanka Chopra features on the poster, but her position as the clear hero is usurped by Prakash Jha, the film’s writer and director.
Jha himself plays Deputy BN Singh, a crooked cop in the crime-ridden hamlet of Bankipur. The town’s corruption is laid out in the movie’s protracted opening sequence. Power-mad politician Babloo Pandey (Manav Kaul) and his cartoonishly villainous brother, Dabloo (Ninad Kamat), operate with impunity under the protection of cops like Singh, who lives in a mansion more lavish than any public servant could afford on his salary alone.
When the police chief tries to clean up the force, Singh arranges his superior’s transfer. Little does Singh know that the new sheriff is no one to trifle with. Enter Police Chief Abha Mathur (Chopra), more than twenty minutes into the story, long after we’ve been bored by the usual scenes of goons strong-arming poor villagers into giving up their land to make way for some corporate building project.
Mathur’s devotion to law and order inspires a magical transformation within the police force. After watching Mathur — a woman! — beat the hell out of the Pandeys’ thugs with a stick, one awed officer tells her in all seriousness, “Sir, today I’ve found my self-respect.” Even Singh chaffs at Dabloo’s threat to damage his police uniform.
Yet there’s little else to Mathur’s character besides her belief in the rule of law, which never wavers no matter the circumstances. Her backstory is boiled down to a couple of lines of dialogue. We only see her out of her police uniform three times, and twice in the same all-black outfit. She’s like a justice robot who switches off when not on duty.
Singh, on the other hand, is a well-developed character who grows morally and emotionally throughout the film. Singh gets the better story arc and about the same amount of screentime as Mathur, so why isn’t Jha on the poster with — or instead of — Chopra?
The bait-and-switch of selling Jai Gangaajal as a Priyanka Chopra picture isn’t as bothersome as the fact that Jha the filmmaker had a chance to make a more interesting movie than the one he did. Imagine Chopra as the female version of the Bollywood supercop regularly played by men like Salman Khan, Ajay Devgn, and Akshay Kumar. Not a gritty, realistic cop like Rani Mukerji in Mardaani, but a full-on desi action hero divinely imbued with superhuman strength.
Chopra is tremendous in the action scenes in Jai Gangaajal, and she looks badass in her police uniform. She has a broad enough acting range to pull off bombastic dialogue without sounding silly. A female twist on the supercop would allow for exploration of the relationship between women and the justice system. One brief shot in Jai Gangaajal of Mathur hugging a girl she’s saved from kidnappers seemed positioned to lead the story in that direction, but Jha’s movie doesn’t follow that path.
Instead, Jha views all his female characters through the prism of sexual violence. When Dabloo gets in a physical altercation with a young woman he’s threatened to kill, he pauses to rape her first. Though Mathur is never directly threatened with rape, Dabloo make vulgar gestures and comments in regard to her appearance.
There have already been so many Bollywood made about corruption in small town India, and Jha’s boring, disorganized story doesn’t break any new ground.