'Ungli' ('The Finger'): Film Review

Ungli Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Reliance

Ungli Still - H 2014

What starts as a promising spark of an idea fizzles out thanks to lackluster execution

Masked provocateurs use the mass media to expose corruption in India

India’s epidemic of corruption has been the focus of a number of successful films, such as the searing Marathi drama Dombivali Fast to the hilarious social satire Lage Raho Munna Bhai. In Ungli (The Finger), a whip-smart band of hip young activists aims to shine a light on the myriad offenders who make daily life in Mumbai such a grind, from the government official who won’t release an old man’s pension funds without a blatant bribe to the greedy auto-rickshaw driver who refuses to give a ride to a housewife laden with groceries, simply because the short trip isn't profitable enough.

In the right hands, the topic of corruption is ripe for interpretation. But despite its intriguing and relevant premise, Ungli suffers from a too-tame and by-the-numbers directorial approach. This stuff is supposed to have viewers raging for revolution on the way to the parking lot; it isn’t supposed to be boring.

Releasing on a modest number of U.S. screens on Thanksgiving and benefiting from a well-made trailer that promises more than it delivers, Ungli is nevertheless destined for B-level obscurity. The film’s relatively brisk 114-minute running time (an oddity among most mainstream three-hour-plus Bollywood films) doesn’t help much either, as the pace drags anyway and filmmakers have inexplicably dropped a 20-minute intermission into the middle of it.

The film’s self-proclaimed “Ungli Gang” exists to “give corruption the finger” by donning ski masks, staging elaborate stings, recording everything, and sending the embarrassing evidence to the news media. The general public laps it up, and the gang’s four masked avengers soon attain superstar status.

Journalist Abhay (Randeep Hooda, Jism 2) leads a quartet of pissed-off urbanites set on tearing down the corrupt status quo, including a medical intern (Kangana Ranaut, Queen); a computer genius (Neil Bhoopalam); and a mechanic (Angad Bedi). An interloper who joins the group (Emraan Hashmi, The Dirty Picture and Danis Tanovic’s 2014 Toronto feature Tigers) contributes a satisfying twist to the story.

Writer-director Renzil D’Silva — a force behind the official Indian remake of Fox Television’s 24 — deserves credit for depicting the women in this film as capable and strong (Shraddha Kapoor’s nightclub “item song” aside); and especially for casting Sanjay Dutt as the police officer out to make an example of the gang. Dutt, a megastar of the '80s and '90s, is currently serving a five-year sentence for firearms charges connected to the 1993 Mumbai blasts that left more than 350 dead.

Dutt was allowed a brief period of parole to shoot this film. News junkies may find it ironically satisfying to hear him deliver lines about the force of justice and the exalted position of law enforcement.

Production: Dharma Productions

Cast: Randeep Hooda, Emraan Hashmi, Kangana Ranaut, Sanjay Dutt, Neha Dhupia

Director-screenwriter: Renzil D’Silva

Producers: Karan Johar and Hiroo Yash Johar

Executive producer: Sumit Chawla

Director of photography: Hemant Chaturvedi

Production designer: Indrani Pillai

Editor: Deepa Bhatia

Composer: John Stewart Eduri

Unrated, 114 minutes