In Jail, director Madhur Bhandarkar constructs a Kafkaesque nightmare. Parag Dixit, an upper-middle class, corporate man, played by Neil Nitin Mukesh, is circumstantially implicated in a drug bust and lands up in jail.
However, Bhandarkar explores Parag’s horrific predicament with such little rigour, that Jail never becomes more than a well-intentioned but muddle-headed film.
Jail begins well enough with Parag taking his first steps into prison but then the screenplay, written by Anuradha Tiwari and Manoj Tyagi, spends the next half hour telling us how he got there.
This includes an unnecessary song and dance in a nightclub with Parag’s girlfriend Mansi, played by Mughda Godse, who spends the rest of the film looking wide-eyed and concerned.
In jail, we meet Parag’s new room-mates but none of them except for Nawab, played by Manoj Bajpai, leave any impression.
These aren’t so much characters as men with one defining trait – so one called Ghalib recites bad poetry, another tells the future and a third spends his time playing carom. There is also a supremely annoying DJ named Joe D’Souza, who at one point gets the beating he deserves for his astonishingly bad acting.
Thankfully the second half isn’t as dramatically inert as the first. Bhandarkar wants us to understand that the prison environment brutalizes both the prisoner and his custodian. So, the convicts get their back-stories but the jailor also gets a scene in which he vents about his back-breaking working hours and meager salary.
The director also seems to have reined in his worst voyeuristic tendencies. Unlike Fashion or Page 3, Bhandarkar empathises with his characters rather than use them for titillation.
But eventually, Jail never becomes more than the sum of its parts. The writing is sloppy—some of the court scenes are unintentionally funny and the climax is so simplistic that it’s silly.
Unlike classic prison films such as Midnight Express, the atmospherics here aren’t tactile enough to be frightening.
And the performances don’t help. Bajpai maintains a pained dignity but the rest of the inmates—like Arya Babbar and Rahul Singh - are imminently forgettable.
At center-stage, Neil Mukesh sweats and frets. He veers between a robotic stillness and hysterical expressions but his anguish doesn’t connect. His pain doesn’t sear us like it should.
Neither does this film. Bhandarkar’s cinema has often been called hard-hitting but the trouble with Jail is that it simply doesn’t hit hard enough. See it if you must.