Jail -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

FREMONT, Calif. -- Award-winning writer-director Madhur Bhandarkar's trademark is to find a socially relevant topic -- prostitution ("Chandni Bar"), the cutthroat business world ("Corporate"), the lives of the jaded Mumbai glitterati ("Page 3") -- and mix just enough glamour with the realism to appeal to critics and crowds.

His latest film takes viewers deep inside an Indian prison, and "Jail" packs a satisfying emotional punch in its portrayal of a decent man pushed to the limit by the creaky, maddening Indian legal system. Overseas Indians may shy away since the film lacks a major star and a feel-good masala recipe, but Bhandarkar's strong boxoffice record bodes well for the film's futures in India.

Neil Nitin Mukesh is Parag Dixit, a soft, pampered yuppie wrongly jailed on drug and murder charges. As the months (and years) creep by, Parag makes appeal after appeal, but his smarmy lawyer does the least amount of work possible to earn his exorbitant fees. At some point, the concept of innocence seems irrelevant. "In here, nobody cares if you did or didn't do it," says a cell mate.

The jail is populated by a fascinating mix of men -- an ambitious young mob goon, a dreamy poet; a Hindu astrologer, who tries to compute release dates; and Nawab (Manjo Bajpai), a brooding, troubled soul who takes newbie Parag under his wing.

Some clever scenes will be appreciated most by those familiar with India's headlines: One convict is in because he's been wrongly accused of demanding dowry; another, a flashy, tattooed lout, is transparently modeled on Bollywood star Salman Khan, who was charged in 2002 with drunk driving and running over some homeless people sleeping on a sidewalk.

Bhandarkar shot the film in sequence, a rarity in Indian cinema but a wise artistic decision. As Parag stays in jail, his humanity gradually slips away and his expression becomes harder, leaner and more haunted. Strong, restrained performances by Mukesh, Bajpai and Mugdha Godse (as Parag's fiancee) add to the realism in this memorable, and ultimately uplifting, film.

Opened: Friday, Nov. 6 (Percept Picture Company)
Cast: Neil Nitin Mukesh, Manoj Bajpai, Mugdha Godse,Arya Babbar, Jignesh Joshi, G.K. Desai
Director: Madhur Bhandarkar
Screenwriters: Madhur Bhandarkar, Anuradha Tiwari, Manoj Tiyagi
Producer: Shailendra Singh
Executive producer: Sanjay Mehta
Director of photography: Kalpesh Bhandarkar
Production designer: Nitin Chandrakant Desai
Music: Shamir Tandon
Editor: Devendra Murdeshwar
Not rated, 135 minutes