Few Indian stars can do ludicrousness quite like Dileep. The Malayalam film actor is in full flow in director Sundardass’ Welcome to Central Jail in which he plays a habitual prison-goer constantly seeking excuses to get himself arrested. Weird? You see, he feels at home behind bars since his parents died in custody, and he finds himself bereft of love in the outside world.
Then one day he falls for local photographer Radhika (Vedhika) and in her, finds a reason to value freedom. A murder follows, leading to a second half in which comedy shares equal space with suspense, corrupt politicians, policemen who are on their payrolls and extreme bloodshed.
All’s well as long as Dileep’s Unnikuttan indulges in inoffensive, over-the-top antics. After all, everything about his character is unapologetically caricaturish and crying out not to be taken seriously.
Fair enough. I giggled each time Unnikuttan refers to the jail as his tharavadu (ancestral home). There are plenty of laughs to also be had from the banter between the hero and a prison superintendent played by Renji Panicker, an inmate played by Hareesh Perumanna and a friend played by Aju Varghese. These portions work on the strength of the actors’ comic timing, energy levels and some well-thought-out silliness.
Sadly, though not surprisingly, cliched juvenility, sexism and squirm-worthiness too are par for the course in Welcome to Central Jail. In one scene a man’s wig is accidentally lopped off in public and ice creams fly around. Yawn. There are bawdy references to female breasts, Unnikuttan describes a policewoman’s bottom in detail and as an afterthought makes a wisecrack about her male colleague’s rear. Cringe. But when a dwarf falls into a food container, you have to wonder how low-IQ and insensitive a viewer must be to find humour in a disability.
It gets worse.
Writer Benny P Nayarambalam couches rape ‘jokes’ in concern. There is a pointed conversation between Unnikuttan and two cops — one of the few sober exchanges initiated by the protagonist — in which he expresses his revulsion for rapists and a belief that imprisonment is a kindness to them. Yet, other mentions of rape are made in a deliberately comical tone. Guess Team Central Jail knows their audience. You should have heard the sniggers in the hall where I watched the film, when a character casually tells Unnikuttan to next time make arrangements for a longer prison sentence with a rape or murder charge.
I could tell you more about Welcome to Central Jail. I could tell you that Dileep’s dance moves to the film’s title track — part of a stage show by the prisoners — are hilarious. I could discuss the amusing contrast between his gawkiness and Vedhika’s lissome grace as they groove to the song 'Sundaree'. I could reveal that Welcome to Central Jail lifts from the Pink Panther theme for the background music to a break-in scene. I could critique the gruesome violence in two long-drawn-out scenes that come as a shock in the middle of a UA-rated comedy. Or I could say what I really want to say.
And what I really want to say is that I am tired of stars who sacrifice not just intelligence but decency and humanity too while wooing the lowest common denominator in the audience for box-office success. Absurdity is acceptable as fun, but not when it descends to callousness.