Jail Movie Review: An exhausting experience
Jail isn’t exactly worried about infusing characters with strength or personality. Its fundamental purpose seems to be simply to manipulate you into feeling some connection
Towards the end of Jail, the text on screen read, “Sila sambavangalukku piragu…” It caught me off-guard—wait, is that not why we are watching the film? Would you mind sharing with us the nature of said events? The film jumps to the aftermath when the protagonist, Karna (GV Prakash), is being asked by his friend, Kalai (Pasanga Pandi), to do pretty much what we are wondering as well: “What happened in between?” And then, the film begins filling up this forced narrative gap created for no reason except to manipulate you into feeling some curiosity. This isn’t a film that had until then shown any interest in reverse chronology, and yet, it doesn’t care about suddenly screening events from you as a gimmick. You see this all the time in Jail—this tendency to force events and conflicts, in order to maintain the illusion of excitement. One of the women in this film— a character who serves no ostensible purpose—is said to have once been in love with a man called ‘Isthri Murugan’. From out of nowhere, this character comes in for a resolution, with a child named after her, and with a wife who’s conveniently dead. I laughed out loud when I heard this. How do you respond with warmth when the deceit in the writing is as evident?
Cast: GV Prakash, Pasanga Pandi, Abarnathi, Radhikaa Sarathkumar
The warning signs arrive right at the beginning, as a voice-over chatters on about the dehumanising consequences of slum resettlement, like this were a documentary. The narrator goes on almost into a critique of how slum dwellers get ‘othered’. As the story begins—after the voice-over helpfully says, “Vaanga paakalaam”, worried perhaps that we might take off—I hoped that the narrator would stop interrupting with patronising explanations. And yet, it goes on for a while. For instance, Karna’s introduction scene has him jumping into an auto, threatening an unwitting girl with a knife, and snatching her phone. Later, we see him get manhandled by the police, and the narrator, uninvited, steps in: “It’s a ‘small theft’ but look how he is attacked as though it was a ‘big theft’.” Next, we see a man with a half-burnt face, an activist who has apparently been trying to fight the injustice of forced resettlement through legal means. The narrator jumps in with the obvious: “Ivar samooga poraali.” As opposed to what exactly? I found it impossible to shake off the notion that this film didn’t think much of its viewers.
You could even make the conclusion that in its half-hearted attempts to stand up for victims of resettlement, this film almost does them a disservice instead. It tries to be critical of the police department for exploiting young men unfairly, and yet, it portrays most young men in the locality as violent criminals, including Karna himself. One peddles drugs, one thieves, one murders… and it goes on. How about the romantic relationship between Karna and Rosamalar (Abarnathi), for instance? Rosa is apparently feisty, so when Karna first sees her, she tries to attack him with a sickle. Karna responds, “Naane itemkaaran!” and threatens to cut her instead. Later, he compares her sweat to ‘nei’ and goes on to sing, ‘Koththu barotta, unna koththa varattaa…’ With a small act of donation, perhaps meant as a justification for his name, he wins her over, and yet, later, suggests to his friends that it’s a tactic to ‘correct’ her.
Meanwhile, Rosa, like many a Tamil film heroine afflicted with multiple personality disorder, makes the transformation into a caring, tepid lover, whose purpose becomes caretaking (read ‘ruffling hero’s hair, as he lies down on lap and recovers from guilt and grief’). Jail isn’t exactly worried about infusing characters with strength or personality. Its fundamental purpose seems to be simply to manipulate you into feeling some connection, even if tenuous, with the film. That’s why right at the beginning, it shows us a dangerous police inspector, but is busy trying to make us laugh by mocking his hemorrhoid infection. That’s why it shows us an awkward, emotional reunion between friends, but is busy turning it into a friendship song opportunity featuring alcohol. That’s why it establishes a ‘gouravamaana’ woman who may or may not have a purpose in the film—Karna’s mother (Radhikaa)—but gets busy making her the victim of a laughable fate.
A character named Karna and an evil policeman named Perumal got me thinking about Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan. All the aerial shots of the slum’s geography reminded me of Pa Ranjith’s films like Madras and Kaala. As Karna, in delirium almost, begins dancing for no real reason, I thought of Selvaraghavan’s Kadhal Kondein. But really, it was all me, caught in a film whose characters I felt no connection with, trying to keep myself going through memories of better films.
Jail lacks the human interest and emotional depth to truly analyse lives in the locality; it lacks the patience to dig into social issues beyond rudimentary, almost exploitative mentions. Instead, it gets busy shuffling between song opportunities, unoriginal plot twists, and convenient resolutions. You keep hearing ‘machaan’ and ‘machi’ while Karna, Rocky, and Kalai talk to each other, but does this film ever make you care about them? How did prison time change Kalai? How did the long separation affect their friendship? How did Karna and Rocky manage this separation? What binds those two together anyway? There’s no time to answer these questions, and yet, Jail has the time to have its hemorrhoids-affected evil policeman engage in wordplay by calling a woman called ‘Nirmala’, “Nirmoola”. It has the time to have Rosamalar talk of an ‘Audi owner’ hitting on her, and revel in her rejection of him because he was bald. The real jail, when you are exposed to such attempts at humour in a film that’s supposed to celebrate equality and empathy, is the movie theatre.