Movie Review: Jolly LLB has heart in right place (and funny bone too)
What makes the Jolly LLB, starring Arshad Warsi and Boman Irani, more than a standard-issue David vs Goliath story is that it understands the difficulties of retaining a moral compass in a world which seems to reward cleverness, not honesty.
Alert: This review contains spoilers.
Jolly LLB opens with a hit-and-run accident involving a drunk rich kid in a Land Cruiser and several poor men sleeping on a Delhi pavement. The pavement-dwellers die, a case is filed against the rich kid, but his family hires the sharpest, most hotshot lawyer in town – and gets the boy acquitted. The case is closed. Until a struggling young advocate, newly arrived from a small town, decides to file a PIL to have the case re-opened.
Sounds like a dully predictable tale of good-versus-evil? Certainly there’s no doubt that Jolly LLB is a film with its heart in the right place. But director Subhash Kapoor manages to leaven his conscience-laden tale with a healthy dose of laughter. And crucially, he gives us a protagonist more complicated and believable than, for instance, the unswayable paragon of Ferrari ki Sawaari, a charming but somewhat fairy-tale-ish film that was also about honesty.
Jagdish Tyagi, aka Jolly (Arshad Warsi) is a decent-enough guy, but his small-town simplicity is not something he’s proud of. He’s made the move from Meerut to Delhi because he has ambitions. He wants to be somebody. In fact, he wants to be somebody like Tejinder Rajpal (Boman Irani) — the kind of lawyer whose arrival in court causes a stir. When Jolly decides to file the PIL asking for reinvestigation in the Rahul Deewan case, it isn’t only the public interest that’s on his mind: he knows it’s a quick route to media attention and potential fame. It just so happens that this pits him against his hero Rajpal – and Rajpal’s heroism starts swiftly and surely to unravel.
The rest of the film is about how a novice like Jolly meets the multiple challenges thrown his way by a riled Rajpal: challenges not just of the head, but also of the heart. What makes Jolly LLB more than a standard-issue David vs Goliath story is that it understands the difficulties of retaining a moral compass in a world which seems to reward cleverness, not honesty. For the small-time lawyer whose ‘desk’ is a rickety table outside the District Court (with his typewriter chained to it for fear even that be stolen), the stakes are low and the temptations great. Is it surprising that such a man should measure even his own defeats by degrees of nuksaan and faayda?
Kapoor’s last film, Phans Gaye Re Obama (2010), a quirky tale of a recession-hit gang of dacoits, was spread needlessly thin across a convoluted plot and too many characters. Jolly LLB – barring some utterly out-of-synch songs and an uninteresting romance track involving Amrita Rao – sticks assuredly with its main plotline: the unconnected rookie lawyer, a minnow trying to fight the biggest fish in the pond—and having to figure out if he’s going to take the bait.
Warsi and Irani, the consummate performers they are, keep us more than engaged in the twists and turns of the battle. But the character who really brings the courtroom to life is Saurabh Shukla’s eccentric Justice Tripathi—not averse to asking for the odd favour, but sharply aware of where the buck stops, a man who can be a stickler for the rules but can also bend them when it seems absolutely necessary.
When Kapoor does move our gaze away from the central courtroom drama, it is to cast a gently satirical eye on the absurd ironies of the surrounding reality. There is the great scene where a havaldar known as Guruji (Sanjay Mishra) sits down to auction posts at different police stations, with the “upar se order” being only that the bidding start at 20 lakhs and the post go to a “clean image wala afsar”. There is the police bodyguard who arrives, on court orders, to ensure Jolly’s security—a doddering old man who can barely bear the weight of his rifle. There is the unremarked, completely realistic moment when it is made clear that even to fight the good fight, you must pay a couple of bribes—but chalo, you can do it at a discount rate.
There is pleasure in watching the underdog win, and the film does not deny us that. But when Boman Irani’s raging Rajpal shakes his fist and declares he’ll be back, there is something about this film that makes him more believable than we’d like. There's a streak of cynical realism that undercuts all of Jolly LLB's jollities.
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